It's no secret that, in a country where national service is decidedly not everyone's duty, it is often the poorest who find in the armed services a sane career choice. It beats making sandwiches at a fast-food joint. Elliot: A Soldier's Fugue, Quiara Alegria Hudes's play about three generations of an American military family, opens with its young protagonist home on leave after being wounded. Elliot must choose whether to return to Iraq for a second tour. The teenage Marine has a Purple Heart, and his other choice is going back to the sub shop in North Philly. This is not a global view of war. It is personal.
This ambitious and promising play has been picking up steam across the nation. Ricky J. Martinez's current production for New Theatre comes on the heels of a successful off-Broadway run, and it will be followed by different stagings in prestigious regional venues including Steppenwolf in Chicago and Signature Theatre in Washington, D.C. The play's theme is war, but Elliot is not obviously political. That quality makes it at once timely and safe. Without criticizing or examining the reasons why we go to war, Hudes offers glimpses of three veterans and their heartbreaking stories of Korea, Vietnam, and Iraq. "Politics!" young Elliot says with a laugh during the play. "Nobody cares about that."
What he, his father, and grandfather care about is finding a way out of poverty. The subject is especially personal for the playwright, who confesses in her notes that Elliot is "based on my cousin ... the bright star in our family, always with a huge smile, handsome, playful." Just out of a barrio high school and with not the best grades, her cousin had limited options. He enlisted in the U.S. Marines, went to war, and came back wounded. With disarming naiveté, Hudes describes her own amazement at his journey. "There was my baby cousin, and he had just been to war. He still retained his boyishness, but he had bombed buildings and shot people. It just blew my mind."
Her view stays at ground level, a soldier's vantage point that turns from a single voice to three, each thread becoming part of a larger emotional texture. That is what happens in a Bach fugue, and that is what Elliot, with three different story lines resounding simultaneously, tries to do. The art of the fugue is elusive, and fugues themselves are messy layer upon layer of voices coming together inevitably and not always well. The mess, like war, might never make sense. Elliot's pop, in a moment of anguish amid the horrifying mess that was the Vietnam War, throws away Grandpop's flute. Elliot himself never gets to play it, knowing only the stories of the old man who now has Alzheimer's.
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The musical analogies continue, as Grandpop describes how his platoon in Korea fell in love with Bach. "Minor key," he says, "it's melancholy; it's like the back of the woman you love as she walks away from you." Hudes avoids naturalism in her text and flirts with poetry, with Marine marching chants, with ritual. She crafts scenes for all three soldiers in their youth at once, and, even as her dramatic ambition clearly strains her gifts, she displays a nobility of purpose worthy of praise. Poor people are cannon fodder, she tells us. It has always been thus. Elliot: A Soldier's Fugue turns out to be a minor lament on a sad major theme.
Unfortunately the role of Grandpop is spectacularly miscast. Steve Gladstone, a fine and elegant actor, is at sea playing a Puerto Rican paterfamilias. He does little to rescue the playwright's more embarrassing metaphors and seems so caught up in trying to make a geographically untraceable accent work that all hope is lost of creating a real character. Gladstone's has to be one of the worst Hispanic accents this side of Al Pacino's legendary drag show in Scarface. In Miami, of all places, surely somebody should have noticed that.
Christopher Vicchiollo does better as Pop, and Evelyn Perez recovers fast from a too-broad first scene to become touching as Ginny, the nurse Pop meets in Vietnam. Best of all is Lorenzo D. Gutierrez III, making his New Theatre debut as Elliot. Though all except the wooden Gladstone have been directed to go over the top, Gutierrez occasionally succeeds in suggesting both vulnerability and intelligence as the young veteran whose future might well be short.
The production is not this company's best. Jesse Dreikosen's set Ginny's back yard featuring a chainlink fence and lots of geraniums looks too cramped for the awkward raised-platform center stage where most of the action takes place. The timid white lighting by Travis Neff misses chances to help create atmosphere, especially in a double-scene where father and son find themselves in close quarters with the first man they killed. Clint Hooper's sound design, on the other hand, is discreet and evocative save for an odd directorial choice. It is probably too much to ask of a couple of actors that they also play the flute, but with so much talk of the power of music in general and Bach in particular, a prominent touch of Bach might have been a revelation amid all the percussion and voices. It couldn't have hurt.
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