Sunday, September 20, 2015

"Elliot: A Soldier's Fugue" at Park Square Theatre

A quick Google search presented me with two definitions of the word fugue: "a contrapuntal composition in which a short melody or phrase (the subject) is introduced by one part and successively taken up by others and developed by interweaving the parts" and "a state or period of loss of awareness of one's identity, often coupled with flight from one's usual environment, associated with certain forms of hysteria and epilepsy." Quiara Alegria Hudes could not have chosen a better title for her play Elliot, A Soldier's Fugue, now playing on Park Square Theatre's main stage. This story of three generations of soldiers is like a great fugue composition, variations on the personal and devastating effects of war, woven together through time and space. While the soldiers depicted aren't exactly in a fugue state, they definitely struggle with loss of identity, flight from their environment, and maybe even a kind of hysteria as they deal with the aftereffects of being in combat. As brought to life by this terrific four-person cast, Elliot, A Soldier's Fugue is a powerful, poetic, and sobering look at war.

Elliot in his mother's garden
(Adlyn Carreras and Ricard Vázquez, photo by Petronella J. Ytsma)
We first meet Elliot as the returning war hero after his first tour in Iraq, welcomed and celebrated by his family and throwing out the ceremonial first pitch at the Phillies game. He has a week to decide if he's going to return for his second tour, despite an injured leg. He seems raring to go on the surface, but as the playwright peels back the layers of Elliot and his close-knit Puerto Rican family, we see that things aren't as simple as they seem. Elliot's grandpop played the flute in the Korean War, and his pop served in Vietnam, where he met Elliot's mom, an Army nurse. We see flashes of each man's time in the service, often in parallel at the same time, as each tells their similar but unique story. Elliot's mom also talks about her wartime experiences and the effects on the men that she loves. She has created a beautifully wild garden, an oasis for the family. Hudes expertly weaves the scenes from the three different wars together with the present to create a moving portrait of a soldier.

Elliot is injured (Ricard Vázquez with Pedro R. Bayón,
Rich Remedios, and Adlyn Carreras, photo by Petronella J. Ytsma)
First time Park Square director Robert Rosen, with a background as a performer trained in physical theater, is an interesting choice for this production. The physicality of these characters is so important, the strong young soldiers, the injured returning vet, the stooped old man. All four actors, relatively new to the Park Square stage, step up to the task in this challenging piece, giving strong and committed performances. None more so that Park Square Artistic Associate and recent Ivey Emerging Artist Ricardo Vázquez as the title character. Ricardo is always a treat to watch, whether as a lisping little boy or the godfather of Minnesota Rock and Roll, and here he gives a beautifully layered performance. He's strong and arrogant as the returning young soldier, showing moments of pain and confusion when alone with his injury, and heart-breaking as he's lying injured on the battle field, crying out for his mom. This believable family unit is completed with Rich Remedios as Pop, Pedro R. Bayón (who played Ricardo's father in River Road Boogie earlier this year) as Grandpop, and Adlyn Carreras as Mom.

Kit Mayer's simple and eloquent set design begins with a bare stage painted with American colors and five large rotating panels. On one side is a natural wood representing the desert of Iraq, the jungle of Vietnam, and the cold landscape of Korea. On the other side is the colorful and tropical garden of home. Panels are organically turned as appropriate, or left partially open to create a third effect. The bare stage gradually becomes littered with letters, leaves, and other remnants of war.

Elliot, A Soldier's Fugue is one of those 90-minute no intermission plays that fully immerses you in their world for a short period of time, creating a full and epic experience (while still allowing for an early bedtime). Playing now through October 4, it's definitely worth checking out to see a moving portrait of a solider and ruminations on war and returning vets, a topic that sadly never goes out of style. (Find discount tickets on Goldstar.com.)

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