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Three Actors Chart the Life of One Character in Quiara Alegría Hudes's Elliot Trilogy

Peter Mendoza, Sean Carvajal, and Peter Pasco explore the fallout of war in three plays running concurrently in Los Angeles.

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As actors, Peter Mendoza, Sean Carvajal, and Peter Pasco had an awareness of Quiara Alegría Hudes's Elliot trilogy before they signed on to star as the same character at different points of his life. The plays revolve around the character Elliot Ortiz, a Puerto Rican Iraq War vet who struggles to return to normalcy upon being discharged from the U.S. Marines Corps with a Purple Heart.

Mendoza had read Water by the Spoonful, the middle play and Hudes's 2012 Pulitzer winner, in college. Carvajal was familiar with the actors from the original production, "great acting OGs like Liza Colón-Zayas, Zabryna Guevara, and Armando Riesco." But none of them had the opportunity to act in the series, which is bookended by Elliot, a Soldier's Fugue and The Happiest Song Plays Last, until now.

Center Theatre Group will present the first two plays in the trilogy: Elliot, a Soldier's Fugue at the Kirk Douglas Theatre January 27-February 25, and Water by the Spoonful at the Mark Taper Forum January 31-March 11. The Latino Theater Company present the final installment of the cycle, The Happiest Song Plays Last, at the Los Angeles Theatre Center February 17-March 19.

Between rehearsals, Mendoza, Carvajal, and Pasco compared notes on the path of Elliot over the three works, and discussed what this momentous theatrical occasion means for the Los Angeles Latino community.

Peter Mendoza, Sean Carvajal, and Peter Pasco star in Quiara Alegría Hudes's Elliot trilogy in Los Angeles.
(photos provided by Center Theatre Group)

This trilogy follows the life of Elliot, a Marine just home from Iraq. Where is Elliot in each of the plays?

Peter Mendoza: In Elliot, a Soldier's Fugue, Elliot has been on tour in Iraq and everything changes in his life when he kills his first man ever, and undergoes a serious injury. He's a kid from Philly who doesn't understand what war is, and what it's like to be a soldier, and all of a sudden, he takes a person's life. In a way, it feels like he loses his innocence. No matter how he tries, he can't go back to normal, and his injury adds to it.

It's also the story of his father and grandfather, who have been through war, and the lack of communication. Elliot wants to talk about it because it eats away at him, but his father doesn't want to. War has hit Elliot hard, and now he has to find a way to get through the experiences that have plagued him.

Sean Carvajal: In Water by the Spoonful, it's 2009, and Elliot has been back from Iraq for several years. He has gone through a big change, and now everything around him is changing and catching up to him. On top of him dealing with the war, his aunt [and adoptive mother] Eugenia is sick, and he's trying to reconnect with his mother. In my opinion, it's a play about facing yourself and facing your demons.

Peter Pasco: The Happiest Song Plays Last is like opening up the next chapter in his life. Elliot is on a film set, using his talents to pursue his dream of becoming an actor, but at the same time, he's got his foot in both worlds. He's making a war film, and there's a revolution going on outside [the Arab Spring], and it's kind of like he's back where he was. But it's a different version of him. He's going to be a dad. It's about the idea of moving forward, as opposed to lingering where you've been.

The family of The Happiest Song Plays Last: cast members Al Rodrigo, Peter Pasco, John Seda-Pitre, Elisa Bocanegra, and Vaneh Assadourian, and director Edward Torres.
(© Craig Schwartz Photography)

Elliot, the character, is based on a real person, Quiara Alegría Hudes's cousin Elliot Ruiz, who served in Iraq and subsequently became an actor. How much of your work is influenced by his actual experiences and the real stories of young men who served?

Sean Carvajal: There's a movie called Battle for Haditha, which stars Elliot Ruiz. For me, that was the starting point. You need to understand and remember that time when we were in the Iraq war.

Peter Mendoza: I started looking at Elliot's interviews. We're all taking our own artistic liberties with how we bring him to life, but I wanted to see how he talks about certain things, if I can find anything about how he felt before the war, during the war, and what it did to him after.

Peter Pasco: We start rehearsal next week. I have to start watching movies.

Peter Mendoza: I watched as many documentaries as I could to understand what it is to be in combat, and what it does to those 18-, 19-, 20-year olds who are being thrown into a war that they don't understand. You see how they were just kids that were full of life, and now, in a way, they're almost empty. They have a smile, but you can see in their eyes that there's so much plaguing them. It's exactly what Elliot goes through for years in the plays.

The family of The Happiest Song Plays Last: cast members Al Rodrigo, Peter Pasco, John Seda-Pitre, Elisa Bocanegra, and Vaneh Assadourian, and director Edward Torres.
(© Gio Solis of Bracero.la )

Los Angeles has a vibrant Latino population. How do these plays fit into that community?

Sean: I'm so interested to see how an L.A. audience responds. I'm hoping to get a lot of Latinos and people of color to come see this piece.

Peter Mendoza: This is their voice, and we get to be their voice. I'm very excited to see the reaction of the Latino populace that we have in Los Angeles, because there isn't so much of an outlet out here for Latino actors or Latino literature to be a prevalent force.

Peter Pasco: I also think the good thing about these plays is that they have a universal content to them, something that applies to all different types of Latinos.

Peter Mendoza: And it's a universal story that everyone can get on board with. War has affected many different families from many different ethnic groups, and they understand what it's like going through war, and P.T.S.D., and grief, and finding your way again. In Water, there are Asian-Americans, African-Americans, and Latinos; our director of Elliot, Shishir Kurup, is Indian and was raised in Kenya. Everyone has their own hand in making this Latino story.

Sean: I hope that the Latinos from L.A. come out. I've always heard it's a very vibrant community out here, so I'm excited to meet a lot of them. Latinos, stand up!

Sean Carvajal, Nick Massouh, Luna Lauren Vélez, director Lileana Blain-Cruz, Bernard K. Addison, Josh Braaten, Sylvia Kwan, and Keren Lugo at the first rehearsal for Water by the Spoonful.
(© Craig Schwartz Photography)
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