Addison — WaterTower Theatre’s production of Elliot, a Soldier’s Fugue carries several badges of distinction: it is the regional premiere of Quiara Alegría Hudes’ play (a runner-up for the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for Drama) and the first play with an all-Latinx cast produced by WaterTower. It’s the second play at this Addison theater directed by Cara Mía Theatre Company’s David Lozano; last year he directed Karen Zacarías’ engaging comedy Native Gardens to much success.
A fugue is a contrapuntal compositional technique in two or more voices, built on a subject (a theme) that is introduced at the beginning in imitation (repetition in different pitches), which recurs frequently during the composition. As a second, third or fourth melody is introduced within a subject, counterpoints are created. A fugue uses multiple melodic lines independently but together form a harmony. It is a type of polyphonic texture. The dictionary definition of this Baroque period (1600-1750) musical technique, perfected by Johann Sebastian Bach, adeptly describes the structure of Elliot, a Soldier’s Fugue.
As such the subject (the dramatic theme) centers on the personal stories and sacrifices made by three generations of Puerto Rican men from North Philly, the Ortiz family, who have enlisted in the U.S. marine corps and participated in wars prompted by U.S. interests: Grandpop (Rodney Garza) with the Korean War (1950-1953), a product of the U.S./Soviet Cold War; Pop (David Lugo) with Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia (1955-1975), another Cold War-era ballistic conflict that was never officially declared a war by the U.S., which nevertheless incurred massive casualties and the horrific legacy of the Mỹ Lai Massacre; and Elliot (Christopher Llewyn Ramirez) with the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq (2003-2011) against Saddam Hussein’s government. There is the one woman in the play, Ginny (Gloria Viveca Benavides), Pop’s wife and mother of Elliot, who also served as a military nurse in Vietnam, where she and Pop meet.
With scenic design by Brian Clinnin, lighting by JoJo Percy, sound by Paul Quigg and costumes by Niki Hernandez-Adams, a world is created that mixes the lush verdant exuberance of Puerto Rico and the hellish sites of war. The thick and numerously exposed roots of mangrove trees offer both full and empty spaces for this non-linear piece to develop. As such, the polyphony of the multiple points of views of the four characters’ narratives seem to intertwine with the snarly roots. These trees, which grow abundantly in places where freshwater mixes with seawater require sedimentation composed of accumulated deposits of mud.
It seems as though the theatrical space slowly fills up with the pain and anguish, a sort of narrative sedimentation, of emotion, pain, and the repression of memories associated with what we now call post-traumatic stress disorder. Through the narrative nature of each of the character’s fugue-inspired polyphony, by the end of the play the actors and the audience have imagined both the physical and psychological afflictions evoked taking a man’s life for the first time, by being physically wounded themselves, and by having to live with these memories, memories both embodied and recalled.
Short of writing a long essay on the complex structure of this play, suffice to say that we are given glimpses of sets of two voices each, which in turn switch and intermingle with each other to create other subsets through the epistolary trope of correspondence. Elliot writes to his mother Ginny about his experiences, and wants to reach out to his Pop, but the latter is shut-mouthed about them. At the same time Pop reaches back a generation to his father, Grandpop. As each attempts to connect with the previous one it becomes evident that the war that Grandpop fought in Korea (where he played Bach on the flute to the enemy), is very different from the one that Pop fought in Vietnam, to the one Elliot is waging in Iraq.
Each character is brought to life with empathy and sometimes humor. Ramirez carries the weight of the title role and of his barrio innocence at 18 years of age, when he first enrolled. His muscular body, movements and speech sound out with the rhythms of hip-hop contrast to his Grandpop’s love of Bach. Garza brings the calmness and salve that only years and forgetfulness can provide. Meanwhile Lugo brings forth a more jazzy/Latin beat, together with a physicality that bespeaks of tough and silent endurance, mixed with a deep sense of masculinity, of morality of the clear line between right and wrong, black and white.
Pop and nurse Ginny’s intensely erotic scene in the midst of the Vietnam war opens the door to a memorable night of desire and moonlight in the midst of the pain of a leg afflicted by gunfire. Time is compressed as Elliot simultaneously experiences a similar leg wound. Indeed in many ways his life and that of this father parallel each other. Benavides adds understated, sassy humor to this piece; as lover, wife, mother and curandera (healer) she functions as the hub to the spokes that are the men in her life.
The use of musical structures in Hudes’ work prevails either implicit in the structure as in Elliot… (which is part of a trilogy based on the real-life experiences of Hudes’ cousin), or explicit as in her collaboration with Lin-Manuel Miranda on the libretto of the Broadway musical hit In the Heights. Hudes earned a B.A. in Music Composition from Yale, and an M.F.A. in Playwriting from Brown University.
Not an easy play to stage or to direct due to its narrative structure, and the absence of traditional dramatic characteristics such as conflict, tension and resolution through dialogue, Elliot, a Soldier’s Fugue manages to make us feel and see the results of wars at a most intimate level. It is clear why this play was a Pulitzer contender. At the political level, we are led to meditate on the numbers of Latinx, African-American and other so-called minority groups’ frontline participation in numerous wars; they who return as heroes, yet are then faced with continued discrimination within their own homeland. For me, this play will resonate in the future for its brilliant structural composition and the virtuosity it demands from those who engage with it in production, particularly its direction.
» Teresa Marrero is Professor of Latin American and Latinx Theater in the Spanish Department at the University of North Texas, where she also functions at Graduate Advisor. She is an advisory board member of the Latinx Theater Commons, a network of theater artists. She can be reached at Teresa.Marrero@unt.edu.