Review: Curious's Elliot, A Soldier's Fugue Issues a Battle Cry Through the Ages

Thony Mena (foreground) and Antonio Mercado in Elliot, a Soldier’s Fugue.
Thony Mena (foreground) and Antonio Mercado in Elliot, a Soldier’s Fugue.
Michael Ensminger

Elliot, a Marine, is back from Iraq with a Purple Heart and a serious leg injury — though it heals well enough to allow him the choice of either returning to combat or getting a job at a Subway shop. While sorting through all of this, Elliot gets the full synthetic returning-hero treatment: tossing out the first ball at a Phillies game and being interviewed by the local radio station, which sanitizes his observations by having him repeat his phrases minus the curse words.

Although Elliot is the central character in Elliot, A Soldier’s Fugue, his is one of a quartet of voices all expatiating on the theme of a soldier’s experience and the enduring effect of war on young men. In a series of monologues, the play explores the consonance between Elliot’s experiences and those of his father, who fought in Vietnam, and his grandfather, a musician who carried his flute with him into the freezing hills of Korea. Like a fugue, these monologues diverge, merge, contradict and riff off each other. And then there are the unifying words of Elliot’s mother, Ginny (a lovely, warm performance by Gabriella Cavallero), sentences that wind around the men’s speeches, both binding and separating, like the strings of healing herbs with which she treats her wounded son. The four protagonists rarely interact. We’re given little idea of the specific dynamics in this Puerto Rican family; instead, we’re offered more general concepts: the importance of the stories that family members pass down through generations, the role of women as healers, the way combat damages participants. Nor does playwright Quiara Alegría Hudes offer many particulars about the differing realities faced by soldiers in different wars: Korea, the last conventional war; Vietnam, a guerrilla conflict during which GIs feared deadly attack from civilians, even women and children; and Iraq, where they formed part of a much younger volunteer army.

Denver audiences first experienced Hudes’s work at Curious Theatre Company in 2009, with her mother-daughter saga, 26 Miles; Elliot is the start of this season’s Serial Storytelling Adventure. Last season, Curious brought us much-acclaimed wunderkind Tarell Alvin McCraney’s trilogy: The Brothers Size, In the Red and Brown Water and Marcus; Or the Secret of Sweet. The overall concept is a terrific one, allowing audiences to explore the work of important contemporary playwrights and understand the curve and sweep of a trio of linked plays. This is the regional premiere of Elliot, which first appeared on Broadway in 2006, and we’ll encounter the protagonist twice more: in the Pulitzer winner Water by the Spoonful, and The Happiest Song Plays Last. His return is welcome; as played by Thony Mena, Elliot is a charming, complex and sympathetic character who shows occasional flashes of disarming playfulness. There’s also charm and humor in Antonio Mercado’s Pop as he describes the uses to which his helmet was put in Vietnam, and Michael R. Duran is a quietly affecting Grandpop.

I’m not sure Elliot communicates much that’s new about war, though there are some interesting details, as when Elliot describes clothes so sweat- and dirt-stiffened that they stood up by themselves when cut off his body at the hospital, or what happens to feet stuffed inside boots day after day. Instead, the focus is very much on lyrical, poetic language, which seems almost contradictory for a play about combat. There’s no rawness here, no sense of real horror. And yet — presumably because Hudes wants her characters to sound like real, regular people — the dialogue lacks those flashes of insight, originality and illumination that we expect of actual poetry. As both Elliot and Pop described the experience of watching a first kill suffer and die, I couldn’t help remembering — and longing for — the muscle and specificity of Tim O’Brien’s “The Man I Killed,” in his extraordinary book of essays about Vietnam, The Things They Carried.

Still there are some wonderful moments here, as in the scene in which Elliot lies on the ground, wounded and in pain, calling for his mother while his parents’ first meeting — a nurse, she’s tending to Pop in a field hospital — is acted out in counterpoint. And ultimately, this gentle piece, well-acted and beautifully designed with a shimmering set, is moving in its own way. Rather than a Bach fugue, I heard “the still, sad music of humanity.”

Elliot, A Soldier’s Fugue, presented by Curious Theatre Company through April 23, 1080 Acoma Street, 303-623-0524, curioustheatre.org.

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