Opening weekend for Burning Coal Theatre Company’s Wait ‘Til You See This series production of Elliot, A Soldier’s Fugue invited audiences to take a deep look into the life of a soldier. This play, a Pulitzer Prize finalist in 2007 and the prequel to a 2012 Pulitzer Prize winner, was written by Quiara Alegría Hudes, who, as the New York Times claims, “combines a lyrical ear with a sophisticated sense of structure.” Elliot is a deeply moving look at war over the course of three generations, but without ever evoking specifics about the politics behind each war.
The story is very personal, delving into the lives of Elliot, his father, and his grandfather when they were soldiers. This production makes use of Burning Coal’s unique space to present the play in the round, with the audience seated in rows along each wall. The actors use the corners of the stage and are often very isolated from each other; in fact, they do not interact at all until at least thirty minutes into the show.
The cast of four was extremely effective, conveying a wide range of emotions that go along with the course of a soldier’s time at war. Elliot, played by Ramon Orlando Perez, transitions from an eager, arrogant boy who loved watching the Phillies and going out with his girlfriend, Stephanie, to a tortured man injured at war who yearns to hear some affirmation from his father. Perez captures this transition particularly well, well enough to cause audience discomfort to see how upset he becomes. Eric Morales, who plays “Pop,” also presented exceptional depth of character at this show; the fun-loving, vulgar man who has intimate relations with his nurse later becomes silent and withdrawn about his war experience.
Hudes’ music background plays into her writing of this play; the fugue mentioned in the title references a musical style exemplified by Johann Sebastian Bach. A fugue consists of one single subject which is then played by many different voices entering at different times, almost like a canon or round, but much more complex and calculated.
The fugue is referenced by “Grandpop,” played by Raúl Granados, who is a flute player that brings his flute along to war to help the soldiers cope with their situation. Granados brings lyricism as he explains how he remembers not the battles he fought, but what music he played there. Hudes has written him as a tender character with less of the anger found in Elliot and Pops, and Granados meets the challenge beautifully. Carly Prentis Jones, who plays Ginny, shines brightly during this production. Ginny is a passionate lover and wife, a loving nurse, and a supportive and sympathetic mother. She is the most omniscient of the characters, serving in many different roles that she is able to vary deftly.
The play itself is also a fugue: The main subject is, of course, Elliot, and his family all deliver lines that help convey his story, sometimes simultaneously, which causes an air of total chaos. However, different subjects break off and expand, so that, piece by piece, each character’s life is divulged. The sophisticated structure can be very difficult to understand in some of the more interwoven scenes, but the chaos that ensues adds to the meaning of the play itself. The contrast between single actors narrating their own scene and multiple characters invisibly contributing to other characters’ scenes is beautiful and expertly directed.
Elliot, A Soldier’s Fugue is an emotional ride, capturing a large slice of the human experience, a journey from boy to man to soldier. Each character’s life echoes the last, one layering over the other, into a complex fugue that resonates throughout all audiences.
The show continues through January 20. For more details on this production, please view the sidebar.