Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Elliot, A Soldier’s Fugue by Quiara Alegría Hudes

By Joe Straw

Fugue: a polyphonic composition based upon one, two, or more themes, which are enunciated by several voices or parts in turn, subjected to contrapuntal treatment, and gradually built up into a complex form having somewhat distinct divisions or stages of development and a marked climax at the end. –

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.

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.
Green Iraq.
Verdant Falluja.
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


“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.

Saturday, February 10, 2018

Sapo by Culture Clash (Richard Montoya, Ric Salinas, and Herbert Siguenza) adapted from the play Frogs by Aristophanes.

Richard Montoya and Maryjane Santamaria - Photos by Craig Schwartz Photography

By Joe Straw

He sat there with the green and brown excrescences protruding from his body, camouflaged, eyes wide open, and his tympanic membranes listening for the germinal. 

Quietly on pads, nostrils open, smelling the green liquid mucus scum that slightly covered his hind legs. The smell was less malodorous than he, and, judging from his smile,  that is exactly how he liked it.

Waiting, his watchful body projects a lifeless calm in the unexpected and breathless night air.

He croaks by happenstance an Otis Redding tune figuring singing was something he wasn’t equipped for but he felt fine just the same.

Tonight, he was the guardian of the gate, a ritual that comes with age and strength ––only his harsh groans opens the doors as one, a conduit to heaven by way of the stars, or two, a burgeoning pathway to hell. 

But tonight it was going to be the netherworld because that gateway was open; the path for which he was the guide. Heaven could wait another night. And it is in that sound, the croak of this being, the right note, and the right tune that transports anyone with a purpose into the iniquitous show of the underworld.

For on this night, the pond frog was the star, the path, and the guiding light into the known.  - Narrator

…Aristophanes, is quintessentially zany, fantastic, scurrilous, and larger than life. It’s treatment of both character and action shows slight concern for consistency, plausibility, or coherence.  And it tends to rely on a mentality which is physically reductive and crudely cynical.” – Stephen Halliwell – Aristophanes, Clouds, Women at the Thesmophoria, and Frogs.

The Getty Villa is a wonderful place to see theatre.  Having forged my way out of the hospital the prior weekend, I thought it would be too chilly for this venue but then I discovered the show would take place indoors at the wonderful Villa Theatre, an inauguration for the theatre and a perfect setting for this show, I was happy.  The quiet walk from the parking lot has a very calming affect for those recently infirmed.  

There are some similarities between Sapo, a musical theatrical presentation now playing at The Villa Theatre, and The Frogs by Aristophanes (405B.C.). The noticeable similarities are taken almost verbatim from the original play.  The major differences are the addition of two characters, the father and daughter.

A question remains, how much material is needed from the original source before it becomes an adaptation?  Is it a percentage? Or is it that the objective of the main character is fully realized?

Josefina Lopez’s An Enemy of the Pueblo, at Casa 0101, takes Henrik Ibsen’s play An Enemy of the People, adds a feminist slant to the play, and follows the basic outline of the play. And it is an adaptation that works in grand fashion.  

But what is it about the “slight concern for consistency, plausibility, or coherence” that necessitates the dramatic push of an Aristophanes’ play that moves away from its original intention? 

Culture Clash (Montoya, Salinas, and Siguenza) starts in a modern day setting with Dad (Richard Montoya) and his ten-year-old daughter Dreamer Dionysus (Maryjane Santamaria). No mention is made of the mother of the little girl.  These characters were not part of the original production. 

Papi is an artist and a dreamer.  But in the small course of this night, he is watching his dreams for him and his daughter slip away.  The words, he writes in a large book, are no longer coming, and he feels the weight of living outside, and off the beaten path.

Let’s not mince words, they are homeless, with just the basic necessities, and this home is only a tent under the guideless stars.

Papi feels the weight on his shoulders; he longs to place his head, successfully, and securely.  Now, home  is only a dream that Papi is not able to realize, at least not this night, as he tries to create his way out of poverty.

But Dreamer, not understanding her predicament, implores her Dad to tell a story, the madeleine that sends her up into the stars and back in time to her dreamscape of the life of Dionysus.

There is an emotional connection here not fully realized between the dream of a small girl and the man, Dionysus (John Fleck), as he travels to Hades with his slave, Xavier (Ric Salinas), to get Euripides and to save the known world, Athens.

L - R Ric Salinas, John Fleck and Seth Millwood

And Dionysus, a Greek God employs his brother, Hercules (Seth Millwood), to give him directions to get to Hades, in ways that are not fortuitous. 

This version of Sapo becomes a night of Prairie Home Companion with Buyepongo providing the musical accompaniment and the sound effects, while other characters on their journey step up to the mic to provide a respite for travelers that endeavor to take their purpose down the road.

The intention of Frogs is evident in this adaptation of Sapo by Culture Clash. The one exception is the ending which moves in another direction altogether.  The comedic writing titillates and moves so fast that one is clubbed quickly with references to current events in our current fragile democracy.

The night opens the mind to breathing colors of art that mixes the sophistication of art with the vulgarity of the current political climate by means of screen projections.  One visual of the sea of sh*t are the blazing rivers of Nazi tiki torches that flow from protest in college campuses into an already wasteful tributary. It is a message that is broadcasted clearly.  

But, in this version of the play, the route of Culture Clash’s Sapo is circuitous.  It doesn’t move forward in the direction of saving a city, finding the man, and having a contest to see who is escorted back to save the world.  

Vaneza Mari Calderón strolling on stage with her guitarrón provides wonderful music for the night as well as Andrea Sweeney who sings a couple of numbers as Adele, and as Selana all in grand fashion and Sweeney also speaks a flawless Spanish. Sweeney is a gifted actress but her role leaves one confused as to how this meets the end of the play.

John Fleck gives a backbone to the story as Dionysus, providing marvelous moments as the opprobrious and not so intelligent Greek God. There is more to add to the master and slave relationship insomuch as to show who is really in control in their relationship.

Seth Millwood as Lefty and Hercules has so much presence on stage and is impossible to miss with his size and voice.

Ric Salinas is Xavier and Aristophanes (in a mask).  Xavier is the witted slave, a slave with profound energy and a will for surviving comfortably. He is dressed as a cholo and moves in manner that I’ve seen in various productions from this actor. But there was something about Aristophanes that caught my attention, his manner of execution, behind the mask that was thoroughly enjoyable.

Maryjane Santamaria played Dreamer Dionysus and had a very lovely and strong voice. Elise Rodriguez also plays Dreamer Dionysus but did not perform the night I attended.

Richard Montoya plays both Papi and Ceasar.  One has to be a genius to keep up with his take on the antics of humanity in Sapo. The barbs fly so fast and furiously that one occasionally has to take a breath to take it all in. At times it feels improvisational that one wants to grab the brass ring of structure to move the play out of the hands of the audience laughter and focused on building the play’s structure that will stand the test of time. Still, it is a very enjoyable night of theatre.

Sean San José, the director, keeps the pace moving remarkably well, the performances are exceptional, and the night move along quickly. One has a hard time figuring out why this production is call Sapo, when frogs have so little to do with the title and the conclusion of the play. How does this connection work?   Also, how does the band work in getting the characters to their final destination?  One can only use this ambiguity to tie the pieces to the collective whole only through our imaginative choices.

Angel Hernandez, Jorge Vallego, Edgar Modesto, and Vaneza Mari Calderon

The music by Buyepongo was superb.  Edgar Modesto was Sapo but one wished they were all given the appearance of being frogs as an extra added touch. The rest of the band members are Randy Modesto, Jorge Vallego, Angel Hernandez, and Eduardo Valencia.

Other members of this delightful show are as follows:

Michael Roth - Music Director
Richard Montoya - Lighting Design
Tanya Orellana - Scenic Design
Culture Clash - Sound Design
Benita Elliott - Costume Design
Zoa Lopez - Costume Supervisor
Yee Eun Nam - Projection Design
Giselle Vega - Stage Manager

Run! Run!  And take a childhood friend.  One that liked to hang out at the pond and watch the bullfrogs jump into the water.

Through Saturday February 17, 2018.