Language Fails and War Happens in Elliot, A Soldier's Fugue at Main Street

Gerardo Velasquez, Luis Galindo, and Rhett Martinez in Elliot, A Soldier's Fugue at Main Street Theater.
Gerardo Velasquez, Luis Galindo, and Rhett Martinez in Elliot, A Soldier's Fugue at Main Street Theater. Photo by Pin Lim / Forest Photography
It’s one thing to try to tell a war story, even a fairly contained one, on stage. It’s another when a playwright decides to make it multi-generational across three different works. But that’s just what Quiara Alegría Hudes did, beginning with her 2006 play, Elliot, A Soldier’s Fugue, now playing at Main Street Theater.

Elliot, A Soldier’s Fugue explores the effects of war on three generations of men in a Puerto Rican family, moving between the past experiences of each – George (Grandpop) in Korea, Little George (Pop) in Vietnam, and Elliot in Iraq – and the week that Elliot returns home. Nineteen-year-old Elliot enlisted with the Marines at the age of 18, and now, a leg injury, two corrective surgeries and a Purple Heart later, he’s home for a week to make media rounds, eat his mother’s cooking, see his girl Stephanie and, Elliot hopes, trade some war stories with his father, whose attitude toward his own time in the war is “leave the past in the past.” Equally important, Elliot has the week to decide whether or not he is going to return to Iraq for his second tour of duty.

As the play’s title indicates, Hudes has based the structure of this piece on a fugue, the intermingling voices of son, father, and grandfather (as well as mother), driving the play forward. In about 70 minutes, with no intermission, Hudes presents a convincing case of same song, same eerily similar verse with a captivating nimbleness. Even more interesting is the way Hudes has chosen to let the legacy of silence affect the way she tells this story, with the characters spending almost the whole play not speaking to each other directly. Instead they speak to each other across time and space, or they speak out toward the audience. It lends a certain sadness, the sadness of knowing that healing will not be found here; a certain matter-of-fact quality to things like death in war; and, in the sections explaining military regulations, a coldness to the production. Warmth and familiarity is left for the actors to find and embody, and the cast, under the direction of Rebecca Greene Udden, expertly handles the rhythms and lyricism of Hudes’s work.

Gerardo Velasquez plays Elliot, a good-natured kid, both a “real charmer” and really charming, but one who is seemingly plagued by a fear of hawking hoagies at Subway and later, haunted by the war he walked into while escaping a future going nowhere. It can’t be said just how likable Velasquez is as Elliot (he’s someone you could really imagine having a good time hanging out with), and just how heartbreaking he is when his vulnerability is on display, much of it frustration and disappointment with his father’s refusal to open up to him about their now shared experience.

As his father, Little George, Rhett Martinez is an interesting study, as we see Pop’s wartime experience, which included expressive letters to his father and falling in love with his wife, heavily contrasted with the gruff silence Elliot encounters. Martinez also shares great chemistry with Pamela Garcia Langton, who like her character, Ginny, is to the play, is the glue that binds the threads of the production together. She links the stories with strength, grace, warmth, and playfulness, and tethers the characters around her (and the story) to an undying hope and optimism.

One character who is almost like an island is Luis Galindo’s George (or Grandpop). George is a veteran who used music, specifically the Bach he played on the flute he took with him to Korea, to stay sane, but in the play’s present can’t communicate much to Elliot due to Alzheimer’s. In addition to masterfully delivering the monologue that explains Hudes’s whole fugue metaphor, Galindo has a standout moment every time he’s on the receiving end of one of Little George’s letters from Vietnam, the emotion on his face speaking just as loud as any of the terrific lines sprinkled throughout Hudes’s play.

Dylan Marks’s set, with properties design by Rodney Walsworth, is framed on three sides by textured metal, a multipurpose, industrial touch that shifts easily between lumpy cot in a war-torn locale and gradually raised platform for the actors. Below, what appears to be a random tile layout at first glance is actually a floor comprised of written letters and photos, and above, partial utility poles and electrical lines hang, the lines green like the vines Ginny imagines them to be. The color green is important to the production, and lighting designer John Smetak makes good use of it, along with blue and red. Smetak’s designs are stark and severe, blunt like the play and decidedly tension-inducing.

Similarly, Yezminne Zepeda’s sound design, ranging from the clearly heard and very effective uses of Nas’ “Got Ur Self A …” and yes, Bach, to the voices of three unseen interviewers, is a worthy addition to this particular fugue, as are Paige A. Wilson’s costumes. Each war is clearly defined by its accompanying head-to-toe uniform, and the thoughtful details (like Little George’s sweaty T-shirt) further add to the play’s realism.

It’s worth mentioning that the star of a show like Elliot, A Soldier’s Fugue is never going to be the set or the choices made by the design team, and it shouldn’t be. But there is a beauty to Marks’s set, and in particular the way the cast lives in it and at its periphery (kudos here to Udden’s skill at blocking the space), that coupled with all the design elements makes for something no less than harmonious.

If there’s one knock against Elliot, A Soldier’s Fugue, it’s that it feels like a prelude. While certainly self-contained and complete, it leaves you wanting more. Luckily, Hudes’s trilogy continues with Water by the Spoonful now playing at Stages and The Happiest Song Plays Last coming in March, courtesy of Mildred’s Umbrella, because Elliot, A Soldier’s Fugue certainly whets the appetite.

Performances continue at 7:30 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays and 3 p.m. Sundays at Main Street Theater-Rice Village, 2540 Times. Through March 1. For more information, call 713-524-6706 or visit $36 to $55.
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Natalie de la Garza is a contributing writer who adores all things pop culture and longs to know everything there is to know about the Houston arts and culture scene.