Three generations of Marines serving in three different wars have their stories told in four distinct voices in Elliot, A Soldier’s Fugue, the first in Quiara Alegría Hudes’s acclaimed “Elliot Trilogy” now making a lyrically told, gorgeously staged, superbly acted Kirk Douglas Theatre debut.

The year is 2003 and 19-year-old Elliot Ortiz (Peter Mendoza) has just returned to his native Philadelphia following a year of active duty in the Middle East. Still limping from the leg wound that earned him a Purple Heart, Elliot has only a week to decide whether to stick around Philly selling Subway hoagies for minimum wage or return to the battlefields of Iraq.

 Pop (Jason Manuel Olazábal) and Grandpop (Rubén Garfias) have their own war memories to share (or attempt to bury), the former of sweltering Vietnam jungles circa 1966, the latter of Korean winters so cold back in 1950, if the enemies’ bullets didn’t kill you, the frostbite would.

Meanwhile on the home front, former Army Corps nurse Ginny (Caro Zeller) tends the urban garden she bought twenty-five years ago to remind herself that “a seed is a contract with the future,” no easy task with a son off serving in Iraq.

 Elliot, A Soldier’s Fugue serves as both prelude and back story to playwright Hudes’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Water By The Spoonful (opening next week at the Mark Taper Forum) and the trilogy-closing The Happiest Song Plays Last (getting its California Premiere later this month at the Los Angeles Theatre Center).

 Using language both realistic and poetic in alternating monologs and two-person scenes, Elliot A Soldier’s Fugue explores the effects of war on those who fight, on those who wait behind, and on those whose dreams of life back home turn nightmarish upon their return, its four characters’ stories intertwining like musical instruments in a Bach fugue under Shishir Kurup’s delicately nuanced, visually striking direction.

 Olazábal and Garfias give Pop and Grandpop gravitas, guts, and grit as both young soldiers heading off to war and the physically and emotionally battle-scarred older men they become, and Zeller makes a powerful impression as both a contemporary wife and mother and the lusty Army nurse she once was.

 Most memorable of all is East L.A. native Mendoza’s charismatic star turn as Elliot, one that captures the young soldier’s courage, his resiliency, his warmth, his humor, his doubts, his fears, his loyalty to and love of family, and his devotion to the military code of conduct three generations of Ortiz men hold dear.

 Elliot, A Soldier’s Fugue looks absolutely sensational on scenic designer Sibyl Wickersheimer’s deceptively simple set, one whose black upstage panel opens up vivid photographic windows into the sands of Iraq, the jungles of Vietnam, the icy cold of a wintry Korea, and the exotic blooms of Ginny’s urban garden.

 Geoff Korf’s lighting is absolutely stunning, casting geometric, occasionally swirling shapes of light on the Kirk Douglas stage best viewed from seats higher up.

John Nobori’s sound design tapestry of music and ambient-establishing effects is equally stunning, and costume designer Raquel Barreto merits high marks for both military and civilian wear.

Casting is by Rosalinda Morales and Pauline O’con, CSA. Maggie Swing is production stage manager. Amanda Novoa is stage manager.

With two theater companies joining forces to offer L.A. audiences the rare opportunity to follow Elliot Ortiz’s journey from fresh-out-of-high-school Marine recruit to adulthood, Elliot, A Soldier’s Fugue and Peter Mendoza set the bar high for both productions and Elliots to follow.

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Kirk Douglas Theatre, 9820 Washington Blvd., Culver City. Through February 25. Tuesdays through Fridays at 8:00. Saturdays at 2:00 and 8:00. Sundays at 1:00 and 6:30. Reservations: 213 628-2772

–Steven Stanley
February 3, 2018
Photos: Craig Schwartz

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