Poetic Fugue Falls Short of the Mark as Drama
As Elliot, a Soldier's Fugue was a Pulitzer Prize finalist last year and depicts a segment of our culture which is not well represented in our theatre, it is particularly frustrating to find that the play describes rather than dramatizes events and relationships. As a result, it becomes tedious, despite some good writing and interesting characters and situations.
All four actors share the narration of events in the lives of three generations of a Puerto Rican family. Each also portrays one member of the family. The men portray grandfather, father and son. Each served in our armed forces in wartime and was involved in combat. The woman portrays the father's wife. She met her husband when she was serving as a military nurse in a hospital where he was recovering from wounds.
Woven in counterpoint throughout the play are events in the characters' lives with an emphasis on combat experiences. Each is cast as he or she would look today (which is actually 2003), even when playing out events that occurred more than fifty years earlier. Respectively, they saw combat in Korea (1950), Vietnam (1966) and Iraq (2002). Each has been scarred by having had to kill young men with whom they identified. Abuelo (grandfather), who has conveyed his love of music to the others, provided needed joy to his comrades by playing Bach fugues for them. His son, George, seems to have been the most scarred psychologically. Our protagonist, Elliot (George's son) is back home in West Philadelphia on leave after recuperating from a serious wound. Elliot has to make a decision as to whether he will sign on for a second combat tour in Iraq.
It seems that George and Elliot each enlisted in the Marines out of admiration for his father. Neither knew his father hated the experience and aftermath of combat because it was too painful an experience for his father to relate. Reading his father's old letters, Elliot discovers his father's feelings. He opts to sign on for another combat tour. I don't think that playwright Hudes ever tells us why. I really didn't care. So maybe it doesn't matter that this crucial bit of information is denied us.
Some of the poetic narration seems pretentious. George (or Elliot) shouts "Bang!, bang!" as he fires his rifle at advancing enemies. The others narrate serially (in part), "... the whisper of two bullets in air; the recoil of the gun ..."
Of greater interest, the three yearningly discuss their childhood experiences in Arecibo (Abuelo), Bayamon and the Bronx (George), and West Philadelphia (Elliot). I think that these stories are more engaging because they are closer to the heart of the author. Hudes also includes interviews which Elliot gives to Philadelphia media. She seems to heap scorn onto a public radio interviewer who attempts unsuccessfully to manipulate every statement of Elliot into a condemnation of the Iraqi war. Hudes clearly decries war itself, but displays no particular animus toward our presence in Iraq.
Within the constraining format which largely precludes scenes in which there is interaction among the cast, Arturo Castro (Elliot), Mel Nieves (George ), Edward Furs (Abuelo) and Dacyl Acevedo (George's Wife) all perform vibrantly and with a great deal of verisimilitude. Director Katherine Kovner directs this 85 minute, one-act play swiftly, making excellent use of the intimate stage space
Playwright Hudes has composed her play as a fugue, as promised by her title. For precision, here is a dictionary definition: "a musical composition in which one or two themes are repeated or imitated by successively entering voices and contrapuntally (in counterpoint) developed in a continuous interweaving of the voice part."
Author Quiara Alegria Hudes may be on the verge of major career success as the author of the book of the highly praised Off-Broadway musical In The Heights, which is shortly due to open on Broadway. Hudes clearly is a very talented and interesting writer. I am certainly looking forward to her next play, which she describes as an autobiographical exploration of her mixed Puerto Rican and Jewish roots. I regret that she has chosen not to shape the materials in Elliot, a Soldier's Fugue into a more fully developed play. Hudes, who describes her plays as being "somewhat" avant-garde, has here placed her structural concept above crafting solid dramaturgy.
Elliot, a Soldier's Fugue continues performances (Thurs. 7:30 p.m./ Fri. & Sat. 8 p.m./ Sun. 2 p.m.) through February 17, 2008, at Luna Stage (Stage 2), 695 Bloomfield Ave., Montclair, N.J., 07042. Box Office: 973-744-3309; online: www.lunastage.org.
Elliot, a Soldier's Fugue by Quiara Alegria Hudes; directed by Katherine Kovner