By Karen Isaacs
Father Comes Home from the Wars, Parts 1, 2 &3 is an epic work in more senses than one. Suzan-Lori Parks has woven a story of a slave during the Civil War and the Greek Odyssey into a compelling story.
Parks is well known to Connecticut theater goers. The Yale Rep presented the world premieres of The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World, The American Play and Venus.
Parks has said that this play, written in 2014 is the first triptych of what she calls her “up-to-12-part” work which will span centuries, genres and moods.
The War in question is the Civil War and the play is set in West Texas. Part 1- A Measure of a Man introduces us to Hero (James Udom), a slave whose owner “The Colonel” 0is going to head to the war and wants Hero to come with him. The other slaves are betting whether he will or will not go and even Hero doesn’t seem sure. A surrogate father figure (The Oldest Old Man) urges him to go while Penny, his woman, wants him to stay home. One incentive for going is that the Colonel has promised Hero his freedom after war; but he’s made similar promises in the past and hasn’t kept them. To counter Hero is Homer, another slave who knows that Hero does not live up to his name.
By the end of the first part, Hero is going off to war.
Part 2: A Battle in the Wilderness focuses on the Colonel, Hero and a Union officer whom they have captured. The Colonel blusters, harasses the prisoner, and reveals his bigotry, Hero acts as the dutiful servant/slave, carrying and fetching water, firewood and guarding the prisoner. Parks has provided us with a twist in this part of the play. Yet despite opportunities to leave the Colonel, Hero remains his slave.
The Third Part, after intermission, is titled The Union of My Confederate Parts. It is 1863 and while the war is not over, the Emancipation proclamation has been issued. A group of runaway slaves are spending some time with Homer and Penny on the property. The three runaways are waiting until nightfall to leave and are trying to convince Homer to go with them. Homer seems inclined but Penny will not leave. She dreams of Hero nightly and imagines his return. As evening comes, Hero’s dog (Odd-see Dog) arrives and tells the story of what has happened to Hero and the Colonel. Soon it is Hero, who now calls himself Ulysses, who comes up the path.
What is remarkable about this sprawling, episodic work, is the fine direction of Liz Diamond and a splendid cast. Diamond and the cast have melded these three disparate parts into a unified whole. In parts one and three, in addition to the fine work of James Udom as Hero/Ulysses, we have the fine work of Julian Elijah Martinez ad Homer and Eboni Flowers as Penny as well as Steven Anthony Jones as the Oldest Old Man. Each of these, creates complete and complex characters.
Part two has just three characters and each gives a fine performance. Udom is the glue holding these pieces together, but in Part 2 he is joined by Dan Hiatt as The Colonel and Tome Pecinka as the captured Union officer.
In addition, Martin Luther McCoy provides the musical commentary (also written by Parks) that helps join the pieces together.
As is usual with Yale productions, the design elements are also excellent. Riccardo Hernandez has created the scenic design though there some choices that seem unusual. In Part 2, there are tall, slanting beams (like steel beams) that are supposed to be trees. Yi Zhao has done a fine lighting design and the sound/musical direction by Frederick Kennedy is also very good.
While this obviously draws (and to some extent parallels) Homer’s Odyssey, is other aspects it may leave you puzzled. At times the story telling approach leaves us puzzled by Hero’s motivations and decisions. Given the opportunity to escape with the Union captain, why doesn’t he? At others times, we can only guess at the reasons behind his actions. In addition, even the title is puzzling; Hero/Ulysses is not a father at anytime during the play.
It will be interesting to see Parks continue her series and the direction that it will take. Will it have similarities to August Wilsons ten play series on African-Americans during the 20th century? Will it continue to reference classical literature/plays for its formats and structure?
Parks is a very talented playwright and therefore to see how she develop this multi-part work will be fascinating.
In the meantime, while three hours in length, Father Comes Home from the Wars – Parts 1, 2 & 3 are well worth seeing. It’s at the Yale Rep’s University Theater on York St. For tickets contact Yale Rep.
By Karen Isaacs
War is getting both more remote and more personal. In the last century, we have moved from being able to see the faces of those a soldier is about to kill to them becoming simply “targets” for long-distance equipment. But with drones, we are moving back to being able to see and identify who is about to be killed.
That is at the root of the play Grounded which is now at Westport Country Playhouse through July 29.
The 100 minute, one woman show introduces us to “the pilot” – a female major who flies F-16s on bombing missions in the Middle East. She is confident, sassy and at home in the male-dominant culture. She loves flying and has a deep connection to “her” plane. Home on leave, she has some drinks one night and is impressed with the civilian (Eric) who makes his way through the group of pilots to talk to her. One thing leads to another and they spend several days together. Back on duty, she realizes she is pregnant.
Flying would be dangerous and she is transferred home.
She marries the man and they have a daughter. Now what was confusing, is it seems that several years pass, but there is no mention of her military assignment or duties during that period. It seems that after three years, her commander tells her she will be flying again. She is ecstatic until she learns that she won’t be flying a plane but will be sitting at a desk stateside (in Nevada) manipulating or “flying” a drone. She will be, in military slang, part of the “chair force.”
So, the pilot, her husband and her daughter, Samantha, pack up and move to Nevada. She works 12 hour shifts, 7 days a week. That also seemed a bit much – no time off at all!
Her days are spent looking at grey bits on a screen with “her team” that includes a young man next to her and others who communicate through her headset. They tells her what to follow, when to zoom in, and when to release the bombs. At the beginning she is following convoys looking for individuals who might be planting mines or bombs in the road. When she finds one, the voices in her ear tell her if they have determined the people to be “guilty” which usually means they are male of military age. She then destroys them.
After a time, she and the others on the team (which operates 24 hours a day) are following a car supposedly carrying the number 2 man. He is a prime target. And it seems as though they track him for days or weeks, yet he never exits the vehicle. He needs to do that so they can be sure of their identification – he limps.
As these days stretch on, The Pilot becomes more and more vested in “getting him” and not wanting the other pilot to do so. But she also finds it harder and harder to block out the blips on the grey screen that she watches daily. The transition from work to home becomes more and more difficult.
I don’t want to reveal what occurs except to say that the remote control war takes a very heavy toll on her. It’s not clear what the results totally are or why, which is a failing of playwright George Brant.
Grounded is not a new play; it was written in 2013 and has received numerous productions all over the world including an off-Broadway production starring Anne Hathaway. It has also won numerous awards.
But I am hard pressed to think any of these 100+ productions could have a better performance as The Pilot than that given by Elizabeth Stahlmann. She brings to the role all that you would expect from the character. Even though there is little movement and no props, your eyes and ears are riveted on her. She shows us the conflicts, the emotions and the enthusiasms of this woman.
Liz Diamond has directed this play with a sure hand. The set is simple, what appears to be a wall and an office chair. The lighting by Solomon Weisbard is interesting but at times distracting since it lights the far sides of the theater. It is the projections of those blips by Yana Birÿkova and the sound design by Kate Marvin that really takes you into The Pilot’s world.
This is not what typical summer theater is: light, frothy and meaningless. This play and production makes you confront and experience something that most of us either would prefer not to confront, or will never experience.
It is well worth seeing.
For tickets, visit, Westport Country Playhouse or call 203-227-4177.
By Karen Isaacs
Here’s my list of the top shows in Connecticut this past season.
- Hamlet – Hartford Stage
I’ve seen many Hamlets in my theater-going life on both stage and screen. Olivier used an Oedipal interpretation, Paul Giamatti was an older Hamlet. The Hamlet at Hartford Stage directed by Darko Tresnjak had all the elements. A clear concept, brilliant sets, costumes, lighting, and a fine cast led by Zach Appelman as Hamlet. He made all the well known speeches seem fresh and new.
- Fiddler on the Roof — Goodspeed
Fiddler has been done so often that it is hard to make it seem different. Director Rob Ruggiero and his team gave us a well cast production that evoked Russia while focusing on the individuals. I had never seen some of the supporting roles — Lazar Wolf and the future sons-in-law played so well.
- Arcadia – Yale Rep
James Bundy gave us an almost perfect production of one of my favorite Tom Stoppard plays. Yes,, there are long speeches about math, but I find the combination of the two stories, the intertwining of time, and the sheer intellectualism of it to be thrilling. The casting was terrific and it reminded me how funny the play actually is.
- The Liar – Westport
A hero who lies but is also charming, rhymed couplets and madcap fun all made this a laugh riot with great acting and great costumes.
- Reverberation – Hartford Stage
This new play by Matthew Lopez showed his progression as a playwright. Was it perfect? No, the ending did not feel right. But it was blessed with an outstanding cast, fine direction by Maxwell Williams, and terrific production values. It is THE play that I have thought about the most since I’ve seen it.
- Endurance – Split Knuckle Theater
A new theater company wowed me with their physicality and the juxtaposition of two stories — the amazing survival of the Antarctic expedition of Shackleton and a modern day executive. Creative and beautifully performed.
- Kiss Me, Kate – Hartford Stage
It is a classic of the Broadway musical stage and Darko Tresnjak did a fine job with setting it specifically in the 1940s. The costumes, set, lighting and voices were great — I quibbled with a few of the casting choices but Megan Sikora as Lois/Bianca was great. The choreography by Peggy Hickey was terrific.
- Caucasian Chalk Circle – Yale Rep
Bertol Brecht evokes strong feelings. His epic and political drama can seem preachy but in this fine Yale Rep production directed by Liz Diamond, it totally captured me.
- Woody Sez – TheaterWorks
- Holiday Inn – Goodspeed
Transferring a movie musical to the stage is a challenge that has only successfully been done a very few times. This world premier was aided by a very good cast and the addition of some of Irving Berlin’s most famous shows. It was a delight and will have a future.
Honorable Mentions: All Shook Up – Ivoryton, Dancing Lessons – TheaterWorks, Elevada -Yale Rep, Nice Work If You Can Get It – Bushnell, Picasso at Lapin Agile – Long Wharf, Pippin – Bushnell, Seen Change – The Broken Umbrella Theater, Things We Do for Love – Westport.
By Karen Isaacs
Most American theater goers think of Threepenny Opera when they think of Bertol Brecht, unless, of course, they think of Kurt Weill who wrote the haunting music. But Brecht was a major playwright of the 20th century.
Not only did he work with Weill on Threepenny, Maghonny, Happy End and others, he was poet, a playwright — Mother Courage, Galileo, The Good Woman of Szechwan among others — a theater director and founder of the Berliner Ensemble.
The Caucasian Chalk Circle, a Brecht play written in the 1940s, is being given a fine production at the Yale Rep through April 11.
The play exemplifies many of Brecht’s trademarks — a broad scope that could be called epic: many scenes in different times and places, a narrator, and the use of music to enhance the story.
The Caucasian Chalk Circle is set in a mythical country of Grusinia, which is located in the Caucasus region in the area of Russia, the Black and Caspian seas, and the Middle East. Today, we might place it in the areas of Georgia, Azerbajian and other nearby countries.
Grusinia is ruled by a dictatorship but as the play opens on Easter, the uncle of the Governor overthrows his nephew. As the “iron shirts” take over the city and the peasants begin to revolt, Ludovica (the wife of the deposed governor) is more concerned with her clothes than her infant son and flees without him. It is left to Grusha, a kitchen maid, whom the narrator calls “a good person” to take the baby who is being hunted by his father’s enemies.
We followed Grushna’s odyssey with the child. Though she tries to abandon him at one point and at another point convinces a husband and wife to take him, she keeps returning to save him from death multiple times. She makes an arduous journey across the countryside, meeting various people who react in often predictably selfish ways. Her brother convinces her to marry a “dying” man so that she will have more status and roof over her head — the brother’s wife is not a “good person”. She also has encounters with the iron shirts who are searching for the child to collect the substantial reward. Of course, the “dying” husband was just pretending to avoid the draft and when he learns the war is over, he returns to health. Grushna is horrified because she is in love with – and promised to — a soldier. As act one ends, the soldier has returned, the iron shirts have found the child that Grushna proclaims is hers, and the soldier leaves.
Act two begins with nary a mention of the child nor of Grushna. Instead we are propelled into the story of Azdak, another “good person” who ends up as a judge. While he takes money from the wealthy and privileged, he invariably rules for the poor and powerless people. When Ludovica, the governor’s wife returns and tries to claim the child — and the money that goes with it — it is he who will hear the case.
He uses what he calls the chalk circle to decide which is the “true” mother — Ludovica or Grushna. In a ending that has references to Solomon, it is Grushna who is declared the “true” mother.
Throughout the play, a narrator propels the action along, sets the scene and comments on the action and the politics. In keeping with Brecht’s political philosophy — he was a Communist who spent the last years of his life in East Germany — the comments are about the greed of the well-to-do and powerful, the abuse of power, and the poor treatment of the average person.
The Yale Rep production features a talented cast, many of whom play multiple roles. Special notice should be given to Julyana Soelistyo who plays Grushna’s mother-in-law among others. Shaunette Renée Wilson gives Grushna the simple goodness that the role requires. Others tell her she is “not very bright” but she projects the radiance of goodness and honesty that the role embodies. Also excellent is Steven Skybell who serves both as the narrator/commentator and as the other “good person,” Azdak.
Liz Diamond has directed this production with a sure hand aided by outstanding lighting by Steven Strawbridge, scenic design by Chika Shimizu, and costumes by Soule Golden. In addition, David Lang has composed the songs that are part of the play.
The Caucasian Chalk Circle is typical of much of Brecht: it can be polemical and preachy; at times it can seem too long and confusing.
Yet, overall this is a play with universal appeal — in fact, it is roughly based on a Chinese story and also can be seen as a reflection of Brecht’s own multi-country journey escaping the Nazis. From 1933 when he left Germany it was not until 1942 that he landed in Los Angeles and the US where he stayed until 1947. During the interim he lived in Prague, Vienna, Denmark, Sweden, Finland and Russia with briefer visits to Paris, New York and Manila.
In today’s news, we hear daily about the refugees throughout the world escaping from war, oppression and poverty and trying to survive with little.
The Caucasian Chalk Circle will engage your mind and also your heart.
The Caucasian Chalk Circle presented by Yale Rep at the University Theater, 222 York Street, New Haven. For tickets visit http://www.yalerep.org or call 203-432-1234.
This review appears courtesy of Shore Publications, http://www.zip06.com.