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Three generations of men are spread across the sparse stage. Grandpop, a Korean War veteran, reads a letter from his son, serving in Vietnam, who speaks the words aloud in the other corner. In the present, at the front of the stage, Elliot Ortiz, the youngest, lies on the ground of his base in Iraq, his leg entangled in concertina wire. The Marine has just shot and killed a man who was driving head-on toward him; the car kept going, pushing the wire deep into Elliot’s lower extremity.
These oscillations in time and space are a constant in New York playwright Quiara Alegría Hudes’ Elliot, A Soldier’s Fugue, which is playing at Curious Theatre Company through April 23. It is, as the title hints, a style appropriated from music: A fugue is a composition technique in which a short melody or phrase is introduced by one part and then taken up by a second and then a third, etc. In that vein, Hudes segues between the wartime experiences of a grandfather, father, and son—and a mother, a former military nurse, who has had to watch the men she loves ship off to battle. Their stories build off one another, even as they take place across eras; the similarities and differences are a reminder of how each generation is both a reflection of those that came before and a unique story.
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The set remains static; rather, the lighting and the costumes signal where we are in time and which character’s story is in focus. The audience, then, is required to do quite a bit of work. Without the distraction of set movement and minimal costume changes, we are forcibly entrenched in the trauma, both physical and psychological, that is described rather than depicted. (The actors quite literally say “boom” in lieu of the sound of a gun going off.) But there’s power in the starkness and rawness of the narration. The result is a frank examination of how the experience of war changes a man (with some much-needed humor throughout)—and its impact on a single family.
An important interlude here: Anyone with PTSD or who might be uncomfortable listening to graphic, realistic descriptions of war will want to consider carefully before seeing this production. (The veteran I attended with had to leave the theater partway through.) This, of course, is a testament to the accuracy of the play (a Marine veteran served as a consultant). And to Curious’ credit, the program includes information on PTSD and the veteran experience, as well as resources and ways to get involved.
A Soldier’s Fugue is the first in Hudes trilogy, dubbed “The Elliot Plays.” It’s also Curious’ second foray into what it calls serial storytelling: one series of plays shown over the course of more than one season. The plays are based on Hudes’ own experience. Her cousin was in the first Marine battalion to cross the border north from Kuwait into Iraq; he returned home with a horrific leg injury and, as she describes it, “that youthful spark in his eye very changed.”
Elliot’s story is far from over, with two plays still to come, and while I expect them to be equally somber and honest, Hudes intimates that it won’t all be about the hell of war. “I was exploring where there are places for tenderness and rejuvenation after conflict,” she says. “Legacy and generations are themes that crop up again for me. In each play, the characters grapple with the thorniness of inheritances that are blessings and burdens.” These, of course, are themes that even those who have never been to war can relate to. But regardless of your own narrative, you are certain to leave A Soldier’s Fugue with a deeper, more complex understanding of the people and the families who fight for our freedom.