By Joe Straw
Prelude: musical composition, usually brief, that is generally played as an introduction to another, larger musical piece. The term is applied generically to any piece preceding a religious or secular ceremony, including in some instances an operatic performance. https://www.britannica.com/art/prelude-musi
One has to come prepared to see this production as a verbal fugue, and be in that mindset. The actors speak to the fourth wall for the most part, harmonies are not present, and there is no discernable music. After the first fugue, the play is separated by four preludes, another fugue, three preludes, one more fugue, another three preludes, and then onto the final fugue.
And, with the exception of one remarkable performance, try as I might, I did not hear the music in Elliot, A Soldier’s Fugue by Quiara Alegría Hudes directed by Shishir Kurup at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City.
The play, on paper, starts with a soldier’s fugue, but the dramatic theme is understated in this version of the play, and there is little interplay between characters. The relationships are born, created by enervated discourse, but is it there, on the stage?
One desperately tries to find a theme, which does not materialize as in a Bach fugue, in variations, and/or verbal competition throughout this seventy-three minute drama?
The play starts with a peculiarity. At first it appeared to be a stagehand moving props and potted plants around on a bare stage. But that stagehand was an actor, Ginny (Caro Zeller) moving on stage, repotting the plants, and describing the moments of Marine life, the thirty-six springs of a marine bunk.
This is an opening that lacks clarity and even creativity to start off the opening dramatic fugue.
Speaking to the fourth wall, as most of the characters do in this play, the relationships between characters require another level of intimacy from the actors, one that creatively defines the relationships, and in the way one sees characters on stage and know immediately they are related – mom, dad, son and grandfather. And, one wants to see what makes the relationships unique or special.
Pop (Jason Manuel Olazábal) Ginny’s husband describes making a bed “Tight, like an envelope.” Grandpop (Rubén Garfias), Pop’s father, concurs “No wrinkles or bumps allowed.”
They describe Elliot (Peter Mendoza) in minute detail, watching, appreciating those details as they prepare him to war, constantly moving as he heads on board a ship heading for Iraq. The song of war is felt and lived by all as Elliot goes to war, but the fugue, in execution, is not totally realized.
And the characters all have lived it and express their song for those interested in listening. But, what song are they singing? It seems to be the song of a soldier’s life, of staying alive, and of most importantly coming home.
“I don’t want to hear about no “leave the past in the past.” You gonna tell me your stories.” – Elliot
The polyphonic voices speak but not about the talk that is about the future, or the past, it is an introduction of how each made it through, in their time, in war, if only the youngest one would listen.
But, where is the intensity of the fugue? The dramatic voices that contribute to the piece and the quiet voices that fill the complexities of letting go.
“When your son goes to war, you plant every goddamn seed you can find.” - Ginny
One thinks the play is all about getting home, similar to the thought of going home in “In The Heights” which Hudes also wrote. So why isn’t the director obvious in moving in that direction?
“In my dreams, he said.
Everything is in green.
Green from the night-vision goggles.
Emerald Tikrit.” Ginny
Hard to see Falluja or Tikrit as anything but sandy desert. So, one has to have a perspective to give meaning to these lines. If it is a song of coming home then one must have a perception to add to the collective fugue.
It is in Chapter 6 – a fugue - that layers are built and Grandpop, Pop, and Elliot each have their first kill and witness the last lines of breath from that kill, but little is built into that as a collective whole.
“The snap of a branch.” – Grandpop
“Shh.” – Pop
“Footsteps in the mud.” – Grandpop
“You hear something?” - Pop
“Three drops of water. A little splash.” – Grandpop
And then Grandpop explains it all.
Of everything Bach wrote, it is the fugues. The fugue is like an argument. It starts in one voice. The voice is the melody the single solitary melodic line. The statement. Another voice creeps up on the first one. Voice two responds to voice one. They tangle together. They argue, they become messy. They create dissonance. – Grandpop
And then in chapter 10 – another fugue – that just fell apart. Elliott was not symbolically wrapped in barbed wire but wrapped in what appeared to be a green gauze, and later it looked liked he had died. No one was moving him in the direction of home, visualizing it, or struggling to find the words to bring Elliot home. Everyone chimes in as to what Elliot is supposed to do, it is a chorus of words, of protectionism, and of holding on to life in circumstances that suddenly become out of control.
But with that in mind the execution of the fugue has to be flawless to give us the flavor the author intended.
Rubén Garfias’ performance as Grandpop is brilliant especially in his monologue in which he describes Bach. His performance is rich in detail and in manner. His character goes back in time to the Korean War, to the Vietnam War, and by the time the first Gulf War comes around he is suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. Garfias is a very giving actor and is well suited for this role. It is a performance not to miss.
Peter Mendoza plays Elliot and starts off with a bang. But, as the fugue continues Mendoza seems lost in the character and conflict. We never get a sense of his objective or the conflict that gets in his way to reach that objective. The music of the fugue never gels and his finished is not realized. This is the character we must feel the most from because it is his song, his life. The relationships must be rock-solid. The barbed wire scene did not work.
Jason Manuel Olazábal does a fine job playing Pop. The character is serving in the Vietnam War on May 24th, 1966. This throws the whole the ages of the characters off; Grandpop doesn’t seem sufficiently older the Pop, and Pop seems to much older than his son Elliot, since Elliot would have been born in the early 1980s. Pop really doesn’t have a relationship with his son and has very little to do with his wife, and father. More has to be made of those relationships.
Caro Zeller as Ginny is introduced as we entered the theatre, almost as a stagehand, without rhyme or purpose. It has nothing to do with the first scene and finding a purpose would be a good objective. As the play continues we lose sight of her relationship with her father in law, her husband, and her son, which are not solid. The frumpy costume of age did not work, she is a professional, and an officer and one would have liked to see more of that as she ages.
Generally, I’ve enjoyed Shishir Kurup’s work. His direction is surprising in other things but I didn’t get a sense of this play being a fugue. The relationships are not cohesive, the character’s objectives are misguided, and the things that are most important in resolving the play is non-existent. More work is needed to establish intimate relationships between the characters. The stage is too expansive when an intimate stage would be better suited for this production. The ending doesn’t work. The less than soundproof auditorium accommodates the local firehouse and the sirens as they passed by.
One hopes the other two productions in this trilogy at LATC and The Mark Taper Forum are better executed.