Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Elliot, a Soldier's Fugue
Through three generations of the Ortiz familyElliot, home from Iraq in 2003 and ready to return for another tour; his father George (whom he calls Pop), who served in Vietnam; and Grandpop, who served in Korea we witness the passing of armed conflict from generation to generation. These men risk their lives and take the lives of others, not for ideological principles, partisan loyalties, or deep seated beliefs, but because it has fallen on them to do so.
The fourth character is Ginny, Elliot's mother, who met George while serving as an army nurse in Vietnam. Ginny has experienced the war not through direct action, but as a witness to the scarred aftermath brought on stretchers to field hospitals. Her "take-away" is the miracle of healing touch, of kindness, acceptance, and her faith in the power of life to overcome desolation, a belief poured into the urban garden she creates in a Philadelphia refuse yard.
Elliot, a Soldier's Fugue moves back and forth between the war and post-war experiences of these three men, with stops for the field hospital where Ginny and George meet, the explosion that leaves Elliot wounded, the flute Grandpop plays to maintain a link to civilized life in the bitter Korean cold, and the letters George sends to his father from Vietnam, the only place George feels safe expressing his unmoored feelings.
The play exposes us, at close range, to the kaleidoscopic emotions fear, confusion, elation, horror, regret that, by necessity, boil down to numbness. We also witness the agony and terror of being wounded under fire. War is hell, which is not a new thought. What the play illuminates in ways not so often seen is the logic by which men, sealed up by the trauma of war and the shame of having been instruments of death, bequeath to their children stony silence and empty cavities where there should be feelings. To understand the lives of their elders, children feel compelled to relive them.
At least that is the case for Elliot, who volunteers to serve, against his father's wishes. When Elliot comes home to Philadelphia, a war hero invited to throw out the first ball at a Phillies game, he is as bottled up as his father had after Vietnam. He hopes, more than anything, that before going back to Iraq he and his father can find communion in their shared experience. The play is not so much about war as about the hearts of men that allow them to endure such brutality, to themselves and others, and the price they pay over the rest of their lives.
Hudes calls her play "a soldier's fugue," and music is a major force throughout the 80 minute duration, with classical, jazz and Latin sounds. The music animates each tribulation, somehow making them bearable. Grandpop states that he doesn't remember that much about the war, only the music ... the force that kept him from succumbing to his ordeal. He gives George his flute to take to Vietnam, but doesn't teach him out to play. "You're a man now, teach yourself," he tells his son. One generation passes on its tool, but not the knowledge to use it, as if being "a man" should be enough.
Robert Rosen has directed Elliot, a Soldier's Fugue as a fever dream spread over generations. We are led to sense there is no real beginning and no real end to the story, and what we see on stage has always been, and is likely to always be. That the Ortiz family is Puerto Rican adds an additional filter, as outsiders to mainstream American lifeGrandpop mentions that in Korea, the Puerto Ricans were still kept separate from the other troops. Their culture, a source of pride and comfort at home, disappears in the harsh landscapes of Korea, Vietnam and Iraq, where military life is its own culture.
Ricardo Vázquez gives a stunning performance as Elliot. We feel deeply his yearning to connect with his Pop, the relief he experiences from the gentle touch of his mother, and his terror upon finding himself in a war where the enemy dwells in shadows. We wince with him when he suffers a serious injury, we grieve for the anguish he must swallow upon killing another mana presumed "hostile"for the first time. The latter scene is paired with his Pop in Vietnam, also killing for the first time, also having to move beyond the horror, and Rich Remedios as Pop matches Vázquez beautifully, bringing home the unchanging nature of what it is these men are asked to do. Remedios makes Pop an equally damaged character, taking refuge from the terror he lived through in jokes and anecdotes.
Adlyn Carreras brings a passionate heart to the role of Ginny, giving credence to the ways in which she survives the horrors of the field hospital, and the joy she finds in her garden. Pedro R. Bayón is Grandpop, who appears to have adjusted well enough to his life, an immigrant from Puerto Rico to the Bronx still dealing with the aftermath of his time at war and seeking refuge in music.
The set consists of five vertical slabs, scored as if strafed by shrapnel, which revolve to create the lush garden Ginny has created as a respite for her wounded men, and herself. Sound and light design effectively create the sharp edge of danger in a dark strange world where death may pop out any time.
Elliot, a Soldier's Fugue does not have a driving narrative. Those who seek a story with a beginning, middle and end may be disappointed. But I suspect Hudes' entire point is that there is no beginning, middle or end, that this folly, justified by politicians but enacted by men and women just trying to survive, goes on and on. In writing this piece, Hudes enables us to experience the process, the fissures in human nature that keep us at warnot only with "enemies," but with ourselves.
Elliot, a Soldier's Fugue continues at Park Square Theatre on the Proscenium Stage through October 4, 2015. 20 West Seventh Place, Saint Paul, MN, 55102. Tickets: $40.00 60.00; under 30 discounted seats, $19.00; seniors (62+) $5.00 discount; military $10.00 discount; rush tickets, $25.00, available for unsold seats one hour before performance. A $2.00 facility fee will be added to each ticket. For tickets call 651-291-7005 or go to parksquaretheatre.org.
Writer: Quiara Alegría Hudes; Director: Robert Rosen; Scenic Design: Kit Mayer; Costume Design: Sonya Berlovitz; Lighting Design: Michael P. KIttel; Sound Design: Evan Middlesworth; Properties Design: Jennifer Johnson; Stage Manager: Megan Fae Dougherty
Cast: Pedro R. Bayón (Grandpop), Adlyn Carreras (Ginny), Rich Remedios (Pop), Ricardo Vázquez (Elliot).