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Elliot, A Soldier’s Fugue: A Trilogy Starts at the Douglas

L-R: Rubén Garfias, Peter Mendoza and Jason Manuel Olazábal in “Elliot, A Soldier’s Fugue” at the Kirk Douglas Theatre. [Photo: Craig Schwartz]

What happens when a young man joins the service as his father and grandfather before him did? Over the course of our national narrative, particularly over the last century, this has been a recognized, even celebrated legacy. Bring it up to modern times, however, and modern sensibilities, and what is this legacy actually doing? How does the enormous irregularity of Vietnam play into that framework?

“Elliot: A Soldier’s Fugue,” the first in a trilogy by Tony and Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Quiara Alegria Hudes, examines this and more as it balances three generations of a Puerto Rican family’s struggle with just that legacy. Now at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City, the play examines what these men carry with them, what they cannot tell, how they coped, what that cost, then balances that against their innate love of the natural beauty found in an island which remains a nation within the larger nation they fight for.

Elliot is young Marine back from the invasion of Iraq to recover from wounds suffered there. He enlisted without telling his family, but proud of the fact his father and grandfather had also served. His father, Pop, never talks about Vietnam, though he met Elliot’s mother – a nurse in an evac hospital – during his own recovery from wounds. His grandfather suffered through the winters in Korea, keeping his fellow combatants’ spirits up by playing Bach on his flute. We watch an interplay – a fugue – of all four people’s experiences, both in combat and in coping with the after-effects of what they cannot fully explain.

In this mix, what will Elliot do, as he struggles to define the older men’s understanding, and prepare himself for a return to the front?

Peter Mendoza fills Elliot with the optimism of youth, and a quiet version of curiosity about how his own understandings stack up against those of the older men who will not share experiences with him. Jason Manuel Olazabal moves like a man with something twisting inside as he relives the nameless threats which balance against and overwhelm humane moments of soldiering, the scarring effects of Vietnam. Ruben Garfias handles the switches from aged grandfather declining into dementia to young soldier struggling to play a flute with frostbit fingers – the inner memories which may not surface.

All turn wistful when thinking of the lush greenery of Puerto Rico, and their sense of community there even when returning after long absence. In this they echo Caro Zeller’s former nurse, pulled into a sense of life by tending a random, junglesque garden in the midst of New York. That constant juxtaposition of verdant life with the consistent experience of death and horror which constitutes military action forms another fugue within the play.

Director Shishir Kurup has used Sibyl Wickersheimer’s seemingly simple photo panel set to create a sense of generational link and disconnect as one floats from the present to the past to the present again while the stories intertwine. The focus on the fragility of each of these characters, even as each of them pull themselves up to move forward, underscores the needed message this play has for the world. Depending on who one empathizes with, this can be read – as most fugues can – more than one way.

“Elliot: A Soldier’s Fugue” is the first in Hudes’ “Elliot Trilogy,” which are all being performed in Los Angeles in overlapping productions – the first time any city has hosted all three at once. Next on the list is “Water By the Spoonful” at the Mark Taper Forum.

What: “Elliot: A Soldier’s Fugue” When: Through February 25, 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Sundays Where: The Kirk Douglas Theatre, 9820 Washington Blvd. in Culver City How Much: $25 – $70 Info: (213) 628-2772 or

“Big Night” at the Douglas: Lighthearted Tragedy Stumbles

L-R: Tom Phelan, Kecia Lewis, Wendie Malick, Brian Hutchison, Max Jenkins and Luke Macfarlane in the world premiere of “Big Night” at Center Theatre Group’s Kirk Douglas Theatre. [Photo: Craig Schwartz]

It’s not a new topic, but the superficiality of the film industry seems an easy and thus fairly constant pick as the foundation for an examination of modern ethics. The entire concept of what one is willing to sacrifice in the way of personal integrity for fame and a hefty paycheck plays well when focused on the heightened atmosphere of Hollywood. Now at the Douglas one finds this comparatively standard set-up paired with tragedy – a mixture which proves sometimes rather awkward.

Paul Ridnick’s “Big Night”, receiving its world premiere at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City, deals with the nerves and ethical wrestlings of a career actor suddenly made famous by an Oscar nomination. As such he is potentially in line for big money, but must now follow the kinds of rules agents and studios make when offering such opportunities. We come upon him preparing for the ceremony and being schooled on this by his very comic, but very direct agent.

Enter his nephew, a trans young man passionate about LGBTQ rights and insistent that his uncle speak to this issue in his acceptance speech. Enter his mother with news and a stand of her own, centered around a Pulitzer Prize-winning author she brings along with her. And then, just as they are about to leave for the ceremony, the actor’s partner – also a gay activist – is wrapped up in a tragedy which overshadows the Oscars, the actor Michael’s ambitions, and all the rest.

Brian Hutchison plays Michael as a man both startled by his own sudden fame and afraid of the balancing act he is now supposed to play. As such, he centers the action at several points. Tom Phelan gives the nephew that particular intensity of youth which cannot countenance compromise. Luke Macfarlane, as the partner who has been through a terrible experience, brings the trauma and the shock with him onto the stage in ways which are very moving.

Yet the most memorable performances come from Max Jenkins, whose flittingly gay agent spreads energy all around the room, Mendie Malick as the Michael’s commandingly stylish Jewish mother, and Kecia Lewis as the worldly-wise author who brings the aura of calm as a woman whose familiarity with fame balances the newness of Michael’s.

Director Walter Bobbie keeps all these people in motion on John Lee Beatty’s beautiful set, keeping this rather talky play as lively as one can. Still, the play needs to be worked on. As the storyline juxtaposes tragedy, the role of the famous, and the silliness of Oscar-based nerves, it never settles itself long enough on any one of these. Indeed, once the seriousness takes over – as it must – the playwright seems uncomfortable leaving it there, choosing instead to head back toward silliness just when the chance for a lingering profundity is possible.

Still, in its own occasionally silly way, “Big Night” has something to say, and the characters up on that stage are attractive and interesting to listen to. To some extent, it offers takes on issues which need to be noticed. Now, if only it could be comfortable going deep.

What “Big Night” When: through October 8, 8 p.m Tuesdays through Fridays, 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Sundays Where: The Kirk Douglas Theatre, 9820 Washington Blvd., in Culver City How Much: $25 – $70 Info: (213) 628-2772 or

Heritage, Comedy, Connection: “King of the Yees” at the Douglas

Stephenie Soohyun Park and Francis Jue in the world premiere production of “King of the Yees.” [Photo: Craig Schwartz]

There is a moment toward the end of a favorite documentary where people who grew up in the then-segregated African-American neighborhood around Central and Slauson in L.A. talked about the loss of that neighborhood with regret. Entrance into the mainstream was great, they say, but they lost those close knit community ties. I could not help but think of this while watching Lauren Yee’s funny, insightful “King of the Yees” at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City. Only this time, the community beginning to fray was, and is, San Francisco’s Chinatown, with its antique buildings and firmly held traditions.

Indeed, focal to the entire piece is the impressive, beautifully carved, red door of the Yee Family Association, of which Lauren’s father in the play is the president. That door, situated center stage, represents the Chinatown which the onstage Lauren sees as archaic and dissolving. Or does she.

In this world premiere, what begins as a standard “let me tell you about my father and my heritage” play soon takes a far more engrossing, positively Thornton Wilder-like turn. Hovered over by this very traditional, and apparently powerful door, one ends up touching on several elements of the modern Chinese-American (and larger Asian-American) experience with wit, a certain mysticism, and an underscore of hope.

Central to the piece are the performances of Stephanie Soohyun Park as Lauren and Francis Jue as her father Larry. The other cast members, Rammel Chan, Angela Lin and Daniel Smith provide a wide range of other characters, from actors to mystical persons, which pepper this engrossing journey.

Jue brings to Larry a balance of confidence and apparent innocence, tonally idealistic yet rooted in the practicalities of his supposedly insular world. This provides the perfect foil to Park’s crispness as her character’s assimilated Americanism bounces against the traditions of her childhood. The chemistry between the two creates a specific energy which powers the rest of the piece.

And that “rest” also proves engrossing, from discussions of the stereotypes demanded of Asian actors, through an examination of ritual and connection, to a brief, humorous window on the secret world beneath the touristy elements Chinatown presents to the world. The play proves, all at the same time, goofy, tender, pointed, illuminating and tremendously fun to watch.

Director Joshua Kahan Brody keeps the production’s pacing necessarily crisp, creating the quick transitions between thoughts and characters so needed in a play this potentially convoluted, allowing the audience to follow along with ease. Another star has to be Mike Tutaj, whose projections (along with set designer William Boles’ big red door) stir the mysticism, and (along with Mikhail Fiksel’s sound design) add to the comedy.

Still, all of these arrive in service of a fine play. Yee has the ability to make pointed, apparently autobiographical commentary in a way which enriches, entertains, and affirms. This play never talks down to those for whom the conceptual details are new, and manages – at least in this production – to find a common ground in the ongoing American discussion of the balance between keeping one’s own cultural heritage and becoming, if not part of a “melting pot,” at least one flavor in the tossed salad that is this country at its best.

What: “King of the Yees” When: Through August 6, 8 p.m. Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Fridays, 8:30 p.m. Thursdays, 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Sundays Where: Kirk Douglas Theatre, 9820 Washington Blvd. in Culver City How Much: $25 – $70 Info: (213) 628-2772 or

“Women Laughing Alone…”: Salad and the Absurd at the Douglas

L-R: Dinora Z. Walcott, Lisa Banes and Nora Kirkpatrick in “Women Laughing Alone With Salad.” [Photo: Craig Schwartz]

L-R: Dinora Z. Walcott, Lisa Banes and Nora Kirkpatrick in “Women Laughing Alone With Salad.” [Photo: Craig Schwartz]

As was patently obvious in Sheila Callaghan’s play “Everything You Touch,” which had its world premiere at The Theatre at Boston Court, one huge focus in Callaghan’s writing is the body image messages American women get and perpetuate, and the damage that does. Now, in her new work, “Women Laughing Alone With Salad,” receiving its west coast premiere at the Kirk Douglas Theatre, she uses absurdism to emphasize this theme, and just perhaps give the first hints of societal shift.

For Callaghan, and most certainly for her characters, salad is a metaphor for all of the denials women hand themselves when they obsess over staying youthful, or thin, or “fit” in the unhealthy ways some elements of society seem to demand. When one character sits between two totally normal-looking others at a lunch counter, sure it will show her to advantage because one neighbor is more full figured, and the other is comparatively older, then brags about being full because she ate a grape, the absurdity comes front and center.

Yet “Women Laughing…” also explores what these female obsessions do to the men they encounter. Why would a man respect a woman who is willing to destroy her natural self to shave off a few years, or who cannot enjoy a celebration without bending over a toilet by the end? What does this do to skew his view of women in general? How can such a man face a more enlightened female with any sense of understanding?

The extremely versatile four-person cast creates an extraordinary ensemble, allowing for the quick-change energy which powers this episodic piece. Each plays a host of small, nameless parts, which create the atmosphere for the main characters who waft in and out of the somewhat convoluted storyline.

Lisa Barnes makes fascinating work of Sandy, the successful mother of Guy (David Clayton Rogers), whose wholehearted beauty regimen shifts from anti-aging creams and potions to totally ridiculous measures, all the while leaning upon (perhaps because if his celibacy) a Catholic Monsignor in her building.

Nora Kirkpatrick plays Tori, Guy’s girlfriend, a young woman with an eating disorder, trained to bend her desires to a man’s wishes. In expressing Tori’s phobia about weight, Kirkpatrick offers a straightforward quality to her willingness to point out the flaws in other female bodies, lending to an understanding that she simply doesn’t realize how her own disease colors her world.

Dinora Z. Walcott is Meredith, a lovely woman with a less bony body – a body Guy finds attractive for its comparative fullness, even as he – trained as he has been – cannot see past her physique to anything else. Walcott makes this woman more comfortable in her own skin, even as she yearns for a time when her body type would have been more the norm.

Rogers, as the show’s sole, rather ordinary male, provides a sense of the damage done to a man raised by a woman obsessed with her looks, who sees all other women in terms of their vulnerability and sexual attractiveness. He is left with no clue to who women are or what they can do other than that constant sense of inadequacy he sees displayed by those closest to him, and with an exaggerated sense of his own power, based on nothing more than his maleness.

This plays out spectacularly in a second half devoted to putting this entire scenario in a blender. Indeed, it is in reversing everything that the ridiculous superficiality of society becomes most evident. Interestingly, it is also – as written – the least absurdist portion of the piece. Here staging makes for the statements instead.

Director Neel Keller coordinates and choreographs the constant shifts of scene and character to create a pacing and an interconnectedness that ties the larger story and the short vignettes together into a single message. The second half’s character shifts are handled with a startling authenticity which both increases the humor and emphasizes the point.

Keith Mitchell’s moving panels and Keith Skretch’s at once mysterious and yet impactful projections also assist in the flow and progression of the play in subtly important ways. It’s stark, particularly in the first half, but it works. However, starkness has its price: the constant use of the same images over and over, and the rushing and episodic nature of the first half, creates its own problems. This, particularly when tied to the less fevered second half, underscores the somewhat “lecture-y” nature of the proceedings.

On comparison, the messages made in “Anything You Touch” may have been somewhat easier to unravel, though anyone who appreciates the absurd cannot help but approve the way “Women Laughing…” takes the bitter concepts of women’s self image in modern America and runs it out to its extremes. Yet, extreme characters are harder to connect to emotionally – a side effect of absurdism which may temper an audience’s response.

Do be aware that the nature of this play concentrates on sexuality and on sex, though there is no actual nudity. If this bothers you, this is not the play for you.

What: “Women Laughing Alone With Salad” When: Through April 3, 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Sundays Where: The Kirk Douglas Theatre, 9820 Washington Blvd. in Culver City How Much: $25 – $55 Info: (213) 628-2772 or

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