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Elliot, a Soldier's Fugue

People say, oh, it's like a video game. Oh, it's like the movies. Naw. Base is the most depressing place ever. You wake up, go outside, you see rocky sand mountains. That's it. Rocks. Sand. You gotta drive 30 minutes to find a Wal-Mart. I just mainly stay on base, rent a lot of movies. — Elliot Ortiz
Peter Mendoza (Photo credit: Craig Schwartz).
a The first part of Quiara Alegria Hudes's trilogy, Eliot, a Soldier's Fuge, feels like the beginning of a symphony.

No, the Center Theatre Group production at the Kirk Douglas Theatre is not exactly suffused in music (unless you count the beats of Hudes's language.) Nonetheless, the 80-minute opus directed by Shishir Kurup introduces Elliot, the young man at the center of the trilogy. Hudes establishes the socio-historical context of her hero, places a gun in his hand and a Walkman in his duffel, and sets us off on a glorious and deeply personal adventure.

We knew that Hudes was the real deal following the 2008 bow of In the Heights which she wrote with Lin-Manuel Miranda. Thanks to the efforts of CTG and the Latino Theatre Company, L.A. audiences get to experience Hudes's complete Elliot Trilogy (which includes the Pulitzer Prize winning Water by the Spoonful and The Happiest Song Plays Last) concurrently at three different venues. Soldier's Fugue is a smaller and more contained play than Spoonfull, and Kurup and his company serve it up with grace.

Via a mostly bare set and a few strategic slides, Hudes takes us from Korea to Vietnam to Iraq with a few quick return visits to Elliot's home town of Philadelphia. Our hero, a U.S. Marine, is the son and paternal grandson of soldiers and of musicians. Elliot (played by Peter Mendoza), his Pop (Jason Manuel Olazabal) and Grandpop (Reuben Garfias) each know something about fighting and, equally importantly, about survival.

Elliot comes from a working-class Puerto Rican family which includes his mother Ginny (Caro Zeller), a one-time army nurse, who can cook up a storm and turn her backyard garden into a veritable Eden. By enlisting at 19, shortly after President George W. Bush declared war on Iraq, Elliot followed a family tradition. While a bit of a rule dodger, the kid loves the uniform and digs the way it looks on him. His experiences in Iraq leave him injured and psychologically adrift, much like his father who earned a couple of Purple Hearts in Vietnam and came home unable to talk about his experiences. Grandpop, whose precious flute helped get him and his troops through active duty in Korea, could probably share more if he hadn't developed Alzheimer's by the time Elliot was old enough to put on the uniform. The meeting of Elliot's parents is both humorous and deeply romantic, with Zeller and Olazabal lacing the encounter with a well-played erotic charge.

The overlapping stories of these three generations of Ortizes play out side by side on a dark and foreboding set, moodily lit by Geoff Korf. Solider's Fugue is a story of family and of homecomings that prove not to be appropriately healing. Mendoza, all grins and swagger as the solider doing push-ups and mirror flexes, gives subler shading when the injured Elliot, returns home and finds himself peppered with questions over what it means to be a war hero. The kids just wants to get his leg right and go back into action. God help him.

Kurup and his design team of Korf, set designer Sibyl Wickersheimer, costume designer Raquel Barreto and sound designer John Nobori know this territory, having designed a magnificent production of Hudes's Water by the Spoonful for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in 2014. When you're playing Hudes opus, there is a distinct benefit to keeping your full orchestra intact.

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Elliot, a Soldier's Fugue
by Quiara Alegria Hudes
Directed by Shishir Kurup
Cast: Rubén Garfias, Peter Mendoza, Jason Manuel Olazábal, Caro Zeller
Scenic Design: Sibyl Wickersheimer
Lighting Design: Geoff Korf
Sound Design: John Nobori
Costume Design: Raquel Barreto
Stage Manager: Maggie Swing
Plays through February 25, 2018 at the Kirk Douglas Theatre, 9820 Washington Blvd., Culver City, 213.628.2772,
Running time: one hour and 20 minutes with no intermission
Reviewed by Evan Henerson

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