Parks finds poetry, drama in epic Father

Father Comes 1
The Oldest Old Man (Steven Anthony Jones, third from left), Hero’s surrogate father, suggests that Hero (James Udom, second from left) cut off his foot so he will be unfit to go to war in Suzan-Lori Parks’ Father Comes Home from the Wars (Parts 1, 2 & 3), at ACT’s Geary Theater. Observing the action are (rear, left to right) Hero’s wife, Penny (Eboni Flowers), Homer (Julian Elijah Martinez, front), Second (Rotimi Agbabiaka, back), and Third (Safiya Fredericks, back). Below: Odyssey Dog (Gregory Wallace, center), Hero’s faithful pet, appears with updates on Hero’s return from the war. Photos by Joan Marcus

There’s some epic myth-making happening on the stage of American Conservatory Theater’s Father Comes Home from the Wars (Parts 1, 2 & 3). Playwright Suzan-Lori Parks – one of those great American playwrights whose mere name should always inspire you to check out her work – nods in the direction of other great epics, most notably The Odyssey, but also, as she has said, The Oresteia and The Mahabharata as she tells the story of a slave who reluctantly follows his master into the Civil War.

It’s interesting that Parks’ title is very specifically about a father coming home, but in the play, no character is (yet) a father. Perhaps this is an indication of the even greater scope of Parks’ project, which she envisions as being at least six more parts.

As it stands now, Father’s three parts clock in at a solid three hours (with one intermission), and under the direction of Liz Diamond, part one, which essentially explores whether our hero, named Hero, naturally, will actually accompany his master into war in exchange, so the master promises, for his freedom at the end of the fight, becomes repetitive and draggy in spite of fiery performance by Steven Anthony Jones as The Oldest Old Man and father figure to Hero (again, not an actual father). It seems Parks is slowly ramping up her storytelling – a rich blend of the contemporary, the lyrical and the classical – because part two is much more engaging, with part three finding an ending that doesn’t quite feel like an ending (because more parts are forthcoming).

In part two, we get right into the crux of what it means to be free. Hero (a stalwart James Udom), has reluctantly followed The Colonel (Dan Hiatt) into war. It rankles Hero that he’s fighting on the wrong side, but he’s such a noble character that the thought of running away strikes him as stealing because he is the property of someone else. The Colonel, who is fond of drink and oration, is holding forth in front of his captured Union soldier, Smith (Tom Pecinka). The interactions between Hero and the soldier are especially charged and lead Hero to wonder how much he’ll be worth when freedom comes. Freedom, as it turns out, isn’t actually free.

Father Comes 2

Hiatt delivers an astonishing monologue about how happy The Colonel is to be white, and the conclusion of this war section is tender and wrenching. You’d think such adjectives would be more appropriate for part three, when Hero, now called Ulysses (a nod to Homer and to Gen. Grant), returns to his pining wife Penny (Eboni Flowers) back on the plantation. But this final part, rather than being emotional, tends toward the comic thanks to Hero’s faithful canine companion, Odyssey Dog, played with adorable verve by Gregory Wallace. In Parks’ world, it’s not remotely odd that the dog can talk, but it is frustrating that he can’t seem to get to the part of his story that reveals whether Hero is alive or dead.

The stakes are high. There’s word about some sort of (emancipation) proclamation having to do with freedom, but the three runaway slaves hiding out in the slave quarters until nightfall (Rotimi Agbabiaka, Chivas Michael and Britney Frazier filling in for Safiya Fredericks at Wednesday’s opening-night performance) are still heading out. The trio may become a quartet with the addition of Homer (Julian Elijah Martinez), a slave whose foot was cut off years ago by Hero in a cruel demonstration of power and punishment dictated by The Colonel. In Hero’s absence, Homer and Penny have shared a bed, but Penny has saved her heart for Hero/Ulysses, a man whose name change isn’t the only lasting effect of his wartime experience.

Parks finds music in her dialogue, and she has also woven a musician (guitarist/singer Martin Luther McCoy) into this tale, further elevating the lyricism of her epic. Set designer Riccardo Hernández and lighting designer Yi Zhao lend the story a sense of vastness and space in their elegantly spare stage pictures.

It’s interesting that Father Comes Home is the second time in the last year here in the Bay Area we’ve seen The Odyssey refracted through the African-American experience. Last summer, California Shakespeare Theater offered up black odyssey, Marcus Gardley’s extraordinarily moving and vibrant journey of a man named Ulysses (read my review here and note that the production returns to Cal Shakes this summer Sept. 25-Oct. 7). Clearly the time has come to crack open the classics and reflect the epic nature of every human struggle against oppression and violence, the intricate dramas of every human heart and the ways in which every life is connected, one to the other.

Suzan-Lori Parks’ Father Comes Home from the Wars (Parts 1, 2 & 3)continues through May 20 at ACT’s Geary Theater, 415 Geary St., San Francisco. Tickets are $15-$110 (subject to change). Call 415-749-2228 or visit

Review: `’Tis Pity She’s a Whore’

Opened June 11, 2008 at American Conservatory Theater


Michael Hayden and René Augesen play a brother and sister with more than familial affection for one another in ACT’s production of ”Tis Pity She’s a Whore.‘ Photos by Kevin Berne

ACT slices into harsh, bloody revenge play
«« ½ ‘Tis pity it’s so harsh

You don’t want to be a woman in John Ford’s ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore, the 1630 barnstormer in which women are murdered and tortured – some by their own mischief, some at the hand of their supposed loved one, some just for gossiping – or at the very least, sent into a nunnery after seeing your lover killed in your arms. As one man says: “‘Tis as common to err in frailty as to be a woman.” And don’t forget that snappy title, which also happens to be the last line of the play. Substitute the word “woman” for “whore” and you get the idea.

The men don’t fair much better—they’re mean, violent, corrupt, greedy and stupid — but at least they have all the money and power.

Welcome to the world of the Jacobean revenge drama. Nobody has much fun, including the audience.

You can feel American Conservatory Theater artistic director Carey Perloff trying to locate the beauty and the power in her production of ‘Tis Pity. The vast stage of the ACT theater has been transformed, by set designer Walt Spangler, into a vast array of staircases and platforms adorned with strings of glass beads and candles (or what appear to be candles in Robert Wierzel’s colorful lighting design). The overall effect is both ornate and rough. In fact, the stage looks a little like an Urban Outfitters.

The most interesting feature of the stage contains one of the most interesting elements of the production. Housed in what looks like a giant, upside down organ is cellist/vocalist Bonfire Madigan Shive, who provides live accompaniment for the nearly three-hour production, and it’s a mercy she’s there to lend beauty (and a little screaming outrage) and passion and tenderness to an otherwise unforgiving evening. It’s no wonder she’s costumed (by Candice Donnelly) to appear somewhat angel-like. She confers a certain grace to something truly ugly.

You can’t help but feel the playwright attempting to shock his audience by having a brother (Michael Hayden) and sister (René Augesen) declaring their love for each other, smooching up a storm in their sinful sheets and then suffering the consequences of their forbidden union. To Ford’s credit (and to Hayden and Augesen’s), we do have some sympathy for these lovers, though their quick acceptance of incest as the best possible route seems haphazard to be sure. The brother ends up like a moody, swoony riff on Hamlet, only his Ophelia happens to be a blood relative.

With the audience rooting for the infidels, it’s hard to muster up much concern for the passel of rivals (Jud Williford, Michael Earle Fajardo, Anthony Fusco, Warren David Keith) all vying in one way or another for the sister’s hand in marriage. There are rousing swordfights (fight directed by Dave Maier) and any number of subplots involving betrayal and revenge, but it all feels like it’s heading in one direction and one direction only: the bloody denouement quickly followed by a sharp poke at the Catholic church. An early line of foreboding in the play warns: “Death waits on thy lust,” and boy does it ever.

Death, mayhem, blood and gore – it’s all there. Even the silliest character (an imbecilic fop played by Gregory Wallace) meets an untimely end, and so does the bawdy nurse (Sharon Lockwood), who lustily encouraged the brother-sister union because a brother is just another man, after all. And what does it all amount to? At the end of Hamlet, though the stage is strewn with bodies, you feel something profound has happened that speaks to the core of man’s weakness. At the end of ‘Tis Pity, you’re reminded a) not to sleep with your relatives and b) to be grateful that button-pushing Jacobean revenge dramas are in short supply.

Or maybe they’ve just changed form and are now more readily available in video game versions. That seems about right.

‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore continues through July 6 at the American Conservatory Theater, 415 Geary St., San Francisco. Tickets are $17-$82. Call 415-749-2228 or visit Also visit

Review: `The Government Inspector’

Opened March 26, 2008 at American Conservatory Theater

The town’s mayor (Graham Beckel, seated) succumbs to a sneezing fit while accepting the congratulations of the town council (from left: Delia MacDougall, Andrew Hurteau, Dan Hiatt, and Rod Gnapp) on the engagement of his daughter to Khlestakov.
Photos by Kevin Berne

Fantastic cast makes Gogol’s Government worth inspecting

Let me just say that I did not really enjoy American Conservatory Theater’s production of The Government Inspector, a Nikolai Gogol farce in a 2005 adaptation by Alistair Beaton.

The play itself does not have the farcical flair of Feydeau, nor does it have the satiric bite or vivacity of Moliere. At 2 hours and 45 minutes, this desperately unfunny play is long and in need of heavy-duty editing.

But I will say that where director Carey Perloff’s production stumbles in its attempts at exaggerated slapstick buffoonery, it excels in personality.

The ACT stage is virtually crammed with local talent, and these great actors all find ways to rise above the clunkiness of the play, which is about a remote Russian town filled with the usual pettiness and corruption. When word goes out that a government inspector has arrived, everyone panics, fearing their corruptness and pettiness will be discovered. No one, not even Russian peasants, it seems, wants the jig to be up.

Assuming that a gentleman at the inn — who is unable to pay his bill — is the inspector, everyone goes straight into ass-kissing mode, even though the broke man is really just a broke, wanna-be aristocrat trapped in a dingy inn with an unpaid bill, no food and his man servant.

That’s really about it for plot — mistaken identity, pettiness and corruption stretched into nearly three hours of so-called comedy that feels forced most of the time.

Here’s what I enjoyed in the play:

Amanda Sykes (above left) as the mayor’s daughter and Sharon Lockwood (above right) as the mayor’s wife. The two women are nasty and catty with each other and practically knock each other over to win the attention of the so-called inspector. Like so much of the production, the actors push too hard, but Sykes and Lockwood are a good team, and they have some great moments.

Another dynamic duo is Gregory Wallace (above left), who plays the man mistaken for the inspector, and Jud Williford (above right), the man servant who seems to be the only reasonably sane person in the play. Wallace is at his very best — desperate, snooty and more funny than annoying, which is no small feat in a production this manic.

The production itself is visually interesting, though the dreariness of the play works against it. Erik Flatmo’s set — barely standing facades, peeling wallpaper, general mayhem amid snow flurries — features a central performing platform that raises and lowers at center stage, and a great deal of over-crowded action takes place in this small space. The ever-reliable Beaver Bauer contributes costumes reminiscent of Russian toys, all whirling and nesting and full of rich textures and cartoonish poverty.

At a certain point in the show, watching such local laugh masters as Dan Hiatt (as the magistrate), Delia MacDougall (as the director of education), Anthony Fusco (as the drunk postmaster) and Joan Mankin and Geoff Hoyle (as the ginger-haired duo Bobchinsky and Dobchinsky respectively), I couldn’t help wishing they’d stop doing the Gogol and start doing something that would let them unleash their comic genius.

The Government Inspector continues through April 20 at American Conservatory Theater, 415 Geary St., San Francisco. Tickets are $17-$82. Call 415-749-2228 or visit