BY TAMAR NEUMANN: A couple of years ago I was on a play selection committee for a theatre company. I suggested that we read and consider Elliot, a Soldier’s Fugue for our next season. At our next meeting my choice was callously disparaged as confusing and boring, and the group moved on in favor of more palatable options. I was quite discouraged as I had come to love this play and was hoping I would have a chance to see it onstage. The writing, by Quiara Alegria Hudes, is beautiful and brilliant enough to win her a nomination for a Pulitzer Prize in 2007. Since then she has won the Pulitzer and many other awards for her writing. This past weekend, thanks to Park Square Theatre, I was finally able to see this play realized on the stage.
At one point during the play the character of Grandpop, Pedro R. Byon, explains to the audience how a fugue works. You could call it a little heavy-handed writing by Hudes (and it kind of makes the already obvious metaphor even more so), but I found it somewhat useful as my knowledge of music doesn’t extend much beyond “that sounds good.” A fugue starts with one solitary instrument, becomes tangled and encompassed by others in a conflict, and then resolves back to the single sound. This play is Elliot’s fugue. He is the central voice but his voice becomes entangled by the voices of his mom, his dad, and his grandpop. Each character has been to war and each character has their own experiences to tell. This is essentially a story about war, but not about the fighting (although that’s a part of it), and not about the causes of war, or the politics, or the battles. This is the story of soldiers and the things they give up to serve their country. This is a play about the stories that you don’t hear and the psychological toll war takes on the people who are directly involved in the fighting.
The beauty of the writing was immediately apparent in this production. The set designer, Kit Mayer, left the stage mostly bare, which left the task of creating scenes to the actors and the writing. As the play slowly progressed the stage became more and more cluttered, seemingly emphasizing the interconnectedness of each character’s life and connecting the past to the present. It was a powerful image and choice by Mayer and helped complement the already powerful dialogue created by Hudes.
Since there are only four actors, the burden of carrying the show was left to them. While it was challenging at times to believe Rich Remedios was Elliot’s father, he was easily believable as the young boy just trying to survive in the jungles of Vietnam. His story was perhaps the most harrowing, and in portraying that story Remedios showed more depth than in the other moments of the play as Elliot’s father. One of the brighter spots in the play was Ricardo Vazquez’s performance as Elliot. Because the scenes are layered on top of each other the actors were often required to continue living their present while other characters lived a different present. Vazquez had many scenes that required devotion to that moment and it was difficult not to be captivated by him while the others were trying to play out their scenes.
Because this play is written like a fugue the scenes are all interconnected. Robert Rosen, the director, masterfully layered scenes on top of scenes to create a feeling of three different presents happening at the same time. As you read the play it is easy to imagine the different characters living out their different war experiences. It is quite another thing to actually portray that on a stage. Rosen is able to capture that feeling of different war zones, different lives, and different stories all with four actors, a simple set, and the power of language. But perhaps his greatest achievement is creating a play full of music but that uses very little actual music. The actors come together and use the musicality of language and performance to create a drama that leaves you feeling like you just attended the symphony.
Elliot, A Soldier’s Fugue. September 11-October 4, 2015. Park Square Theatre, Historic Hamm Building Administration Office, 408 St Peter St, St Paul, MN 55102. Tickets: Starting at $24; purchase tickets at parksquaretheatre.org