Elliot: A Soldier’s Fugue
By Quiara Alegria Hudes
Produced by GALA Hispanic Theatre
Reviewed by Rosalind Lacy
(l to r) Manolo Santalla (Pop), Laura Giannarelli (Ginny), Norman Aronovic (Grandpop) (Photos: Daniel Cima)
In its 2006-2007 season, the GALA Hispanic Theatre continues to put women in the spotlight, Her Work, His Staging. The third play in a series, Elliot, A Soldier’s Fugue, is a memory play about a patriotic Puerto Rican family, written by Quiara Alegria Hudes, a rising Hispanic playwright from Philadelphia. It’s a story about how war stories from Korea, Vietnam and Iraq bind different generations in the same family together.
The good news about this production is that it celebrates the rise of bilingual, second-generation playwrights who write in English first. Elliot, A Soldier’s Fugue is performed in English with Spanish surtitles. Those who understand only English don’t have to rely on upward glances to the proscenium for surtitles.
Directed by Abel Lopez, Elliot, A Soldier’s Fugue is a lyrical take on the hell of war, beautifully staged with outstanding performances. In an odd way, perhaps this play is excruciatingly appropriate for this agonizing time period since the Virginia Tech killings last Monday. The play shows us healing can only take place when traumatic experiences are examined. Grandpop, enacted with a stolid sense of endurance by Norman Aronovic, revives his 1950 Korean War experiences by playing Bach on his flute. On the battlefield he piped in minor keys for dead comrades.
In contrast, Pop, enacted with a commanding presence by Manolo Santalla, left his experiences in letters from Vietnam. And the present day descendent, Elliot, a razor salute Marine, absorbs it all and carries on the Ortiz family tradition by winning a Purple Heart at age 19. Elliot is well played with gusto and zest by Andres Talero, who, in real life, has completed a tour of duty in Kuwait and Iraq.
Actress Laura Giannarelli, who embodies the earth mother in the character of Ginny, gives a memorable, warm-hearted portrayal that conveys the warmth of a nurse’s healing touch. When Ginny, the army nurse returned from Vietnam, she bought land to recreate the green of Puerto Rico. When Elliot goes to Iraq as a Marine, she plants seeds in her garden. Her behavior implies that through communion and sharing, silent suffering can be brought to the surface and life goes on.
The bad news is the play is loosely constructed and the multiple themes get lost, like loose threads, in disconnected scenes. Interweaving, fugue-like soliloquies mark this production as unusual but don’t quite wrench the soul with pain or a climactic punch.
But Lopez, an excellent director, makes a noble attempt to string random flashbacks into a cohesive whole. Imagistic story telling in soliloquies by the characters unify the play. This imagery is reinforced by Jason Cowperthwaite’s lighting and Brendon Vierra’s subtlely effective sound design. The sets, designed by Milagros Ponce de Leon, consist of platforms, in earth tones and shadowy splotches that suggest a jungle floor, that piece together at different levels like a jig saw puzzle.
Key questions posed by journalists in voice-over media interviews with the characters raise questions but don’t really glue the answers logically: "Dad never told me what it was like for real," Elliot says. Then he asks his father, who is no longer there, "Did you have nightmares too? Did you feel guilty too when you killed a guy?" Unfortunately these questions are spoken late in the play whereas the affirmative answers echoed earlier.
There are several high point scenes worthy of mention. There is a code of silence among returned warriors because of the impossibility of communicating the horror. Because Ginny, as an army nurse met Pop in Vietnam, she understands her son’s battle traumas. Ginny healed her wounded patients by telling them to escape pain by imagining a happy past.
In one stunningly staged scene, Elliot, who endures a leg wound similar to Pop’s from Vietnam, returns with his mother to their roots and spends five hours on a beach in Puerto Rico. There, his mom gives him Pop’s Vietnam letters, in which he described how the Vietnamese hills reminded him of Puerto Rico. The past becomes present again as Elliot relives his father’s leg wound, his first killing of a guy, nightmares, falling in love, departures and homecomings. Time, the great healer, holds out hope for Elliot. War is hell. But the process of healing war wounds can bring together a grandfather, a father and a present day son.
Hopefully, the Ortiz family can continue Grandpop’s musical tradition without wars when he tells Elliot to give his son the flute to preserve the past into the future. The play ends where it begins with three men in parallel realities, who’ve lived through the same experiences at different times. In 1950, 1965 and the present, the ritual of military code unites them: the salutes, army fatigues, physical conditioning drills. Elliot is going back to war to complete another tour of duty. We can only hope he returns unscarred.
(Running time: 1:20) Elliot, A Soldier’s Fugue, in English with Spanish surtitles, continues through May 6, at the GALA Teatro Hispano, 3333 14th Street, NW, Washington D.C., (near Columbia Heights Metro), Thursdays through Saturdays, 8 p.m., Sunday at 4 p.m. Tickets: $10 on Thrifty Thursdays, $34 on Fri., Sat., and $30 on Sun. Tickets for students, seniors (65 and over), and military, $26 (Fri/Sat) and $20 (Sun). Group discounts for 10 or more. Call (202) 234-7174 or (800) 494-TIXS or visit www.galatheatre.org.