Liz Diamond

Casus Belli

Review of Father Comes Home from the Wars, Parts 1, 2 & 3, Yale Repertory Theatre

The ancient Greek stories that surround the siege of Troy are many and varied. Some are stories of fierce battle, some are stories of defection from battle, of leave-taking and of homecoming, often to violence or betrayal. Some are stories of clever subterfuge, and one of the all-time greatest a scene in which a king in mourning kisses the hands of and shares a meal with the man who killed the king’s beloved son. These stories have resonated for centuries throughout the literature originating in or derived from Europe.

The cast of Father Comes Home from the Wars, Part 1, at Yale Repertory Theatre (photos by Joan Marcus)

The cast of Father Comes Home from the Wars, Part 1, at Yale Repertory Theatre (photos by Joan Marcus)

Suzan-Lori Parks’ Father Comes Home from the Wars, Parts 1, 2 & 3 keeps that literary tradition in mind in a trilogy of plays situated at the time of the American Civil War. The idea of creating theater equal to a mythological sense of the battle over slavery in the States—in plays focusing primarily on the enslaved—is dauntingly brilliant. Significantly, the rhythms of Parks’ poetic language invite epic considerations and give her characters a stylized naturalism that gestures to more symbolic possibilities, allowing her characters to become figures for heroism, fate, and freedom. The trilogy offers a resonant and folkloric depiction of personal confrontations the war brings to light, as though, as with the war at Troy, the Civil War makes everyone heroic, no matter how flawed they might be.

That the situations in these three plays only obliquely invoke the body politic testifies to Parks’ canny sense of how to keep matters in scale. The stories she tells us are about determining one’s self-worth, and for the key figures here—Hero (James Udom), his lover Penny (Eboni Flowers), and possible rival Homer (Julian Elijah Martinez)—that struggle is bound by social restrictions, with slavery, like racism more generally, acting as a critical affront to liberty. But within those bounds there is also the question of one’s place in the cosmos and one’s place in one’s own skin, and Parks makes her characters equal to the question of what kinds of freedom there are—anywhere, at any time.

Hero (James Udom)

Hero (James Udom)

In the first play, “A Measure of a Man,” Hero wars within himself about whether to stay and work the field among the other slaves, or to ride into battle for the Confederacy with his “Master-Boss-Master,” the Colonel (Dan Hiatt), who has promised him his freedom if he serves and survives. On the one hand, there is Penny, who wants Hero to stay, and on the other, The Oldest Old Man (Steven Anthony Jones), Hero’s adoptive father, who fluctuates but sees the value of going to war. Homer, who we might assume to be a detached onlooker like his namesake the blind Greek bard, provides a third consideration. He has some crucial history with Hero, and that adds an element of possible expiation to Hero’s decision. An entertaining chorus of field-hands (Chivas Michael, Rotimi Agbabiaka, Safiya Fredericks, Erron Crawford) debates and takes bets on Hero’s ultimate decision; there’s also a singer with a guitar (Martin Luther McCoy) who frames the action. Hero, played with a worried thoughtfulness by James Udom, emerges as a heroic figure who takes upon himself the contention that freedom can be earned.

Smith (Tom Pecinka), the Colonel (Dan Hiatt)

Smith (Tom Pecinka), the Colonel (Dan Hiatt)

In Part 2, “A Battle in the Wilderness,” there are three characters: the Colonel, who likes to sing little ditties about coming out on top, Hero, still servile, but now, near the war, more clearly equal or even superior to the old white man when it comes to survival, and Smith (Tom Pecinka), a wounded Union captain (allegedly) who, bleeding and encaged, is lower than Hero in this hierarchy. The struggle here is again for Hero’s soul, as we wait to see who he will side with—his “boss-master” whose side he is supposedly on, as a Southerner, or the Northerner, who is an “enemy” captive, and a stranger. In terms of racial difference, the Colonel has one of the most telling pair of speeches in the play, at first imagining his mourning when Hero, freed, leaves him, and then asserting his certainty that, no matter how bad things get, he can thank God he’s white. Later, the story of the Colonel’s fall will be played for comic effect, though its consequences are serious enough to Hero.

Odyssey Dog (Gregory Wallace), Hero/Ulysses (James Udom), Penny (Eboni Flowers)

Odyssey Dog (Gregory Wallace), Hero/Ulysses (James Udom), Penny (Eboni Flowers)

In Part 3, the potential rivalry between Homer and Hero—returned from the war, having taken the name Ulysses—over Penny takes us into more straight-forward domestic territory, while a group of runaway slaves hang about as a new chorus, waiting “to jet.” There’s much more comedy here, provided by Hero’s garrulous dog, “Oddsee” (whose absence in Part 1 was seen as a bad omen), played with a nonchalant dignity by Gregory Wallace, particularly in a protracted exchange in which Penny and Homer wait on tenterhooks to hear the tale of Hero’s end. The resolution, such as it is, leaves us with Hero/Ulysses back where he started—but with a few key differences.

In each of the plays, Parks introduces what could be called a discordant note, and, in each case, its effect varies. In the first, it’s a story that comes to light about Hero and Homer, and the Colonel, in the past. The story undermines Hero, though we might also say it makes him more complex. In Part 2, the true nature of Smith makes that play’s triangulation even more emphatic, though perhaps too determined. And in Part 3, when Hero/Ulysses pulls a new fact from his pocket, we might question the merits of what seems a plot device more than a character flaw.

The Oldest Old Man (Steven Anthony Jones) and the cast of Part 1

The Oldest Old Man (Steven Anthony Jones) and the cast of Part 1

There aren’t any flaws in Liz Diamond’s handsome and sure-footed production. The set by Riccardo Hernandez is starkly simple but effective, with iron girders in the place of trees and an open playing space that Yi Zhao’s lighting makes dramatic use of, in particular the silhouettes in Part 1. The showmanship of Martin Luther McCoy is a great asset to the production, and Gregory Wallace as Hero’s dog pretty much steals the show in Part 3.

Penny (Eboni Flowers), Odyssey Dog (Gregory Wallace), Leader (Chivas Michael, seated), Second (Rotimi Agbabiaka), Third (Safiya Fredericks), Homer (Julian Elijah Martinez)

Penny (Eboni Flowers), Odyssey Dog (Gregory Wallace), Leader (Chivas Michael, seated), Second (Rotimi Agbabiaka), Third (Safiya Fredericks), Homer (Julian Elijah Martinez)

Udom shows us how Hero’s vacillations and justifications mark his struggle. Hero’s sense of his servitude to the Colonel as in some key way defining offers us a sense of how personal worth can be tied to accepting one’s fate. Freedom can be a shock to such certainties. As Penny, Eboni Flowers commands sympathy without tipping into anachronistic attitudes toward her role in the triangle. As Homer, Julian Elijah Martinez gives a nicely understated performance, creating a knowing tone for an enigmatic character. The moodiness of Dan Hiatt’s Colonel helps to make Part Two dramatically compelling, aided by Tom Pecinka’s finely nuanced take on Smith, a role that could be called more a device than a character.

Hero (James Udom), Smith (Tom Pecinka)

Hero (James Udom), Smith (Tom Pecinka)

Epic and almost impossibly ambitious in concept, Suzan-Lori Parks’ defining trilogy receives a masterful production at the Yale Repertory Theatre through April 7, then moves to San Francisco's American Conservatory Theater from April 25 to May 20.


Father Comes Home from the Wars, Parts 1, 2 & 3
By Suzan-Lori Parks
Directed by Liz Diamond
With songs and additional music by Suzan-Lori Parks

Choreography: Randy Duncan; Scenic Design: Riccardo Hernández; Costume Design: Sarah Nietfeld; Lighting Design: Yi Zhao; Sound Design and Musical Direction: Frederick Kennedy; Production Dramaturgs: Catherine María Rodríguez, Catherine Sheehy; Technical Director: Latiana (LT) Gourzong; Vocal and Dialect Coach: Chantal Jean-Pierre; Fight Director: Rick Sordelet; Wig Designer: Cookie Jordan; Stage Manager: Shelby North

Cast: Rotimi Agbabiaka, Erron Crawford, Eboni Flowers, Safiya Fredericks, Dan Hiatt, Steven Anthony Jones, Julian Elijah Martinez, Martin Luther McCoy, Chivas Michael, Tom Pecinka, James Udom, Gregory Wallace

Yale Repertory Theatre
March 16-April 7, 2018

Eye in the Sky

Review of Grounded, Westport Country Playhouse

Technology determines the quality of our lives. That truism may seem rather obvious, but the question is: what are its implications? We may not want to imagine, or remember, a life before cellphones, or before television, or before telephones, or cars, or refrigeration. We may believe the world is better with those things in it. How about drones?

Grounded, by George Brant, directed as a slow-burn tour de force by Liz Diamond at Westport Country Playhouse, makes us not only imagine, but also confront, the increasing prevalence in our world of drones—or unmanned, remote-controlled aircraft—and what their presence entails. In sum: we’re all sitting ducks.

The pilot (Elizabeth Stahlmann) (photo: Carol Rosegg)

The pilot (Elizabeth Stahlmann) (photo: Carol Rosegg)

The pilot (Elizabeth Stahlmann, in a smashing Connecticut debut as a professional after a fine run as a student actor at the Yale School of Drama) is our confidante. She tells us intimate details about her life, her loves, her hopes. She makes us exult with her as she professes her undying love of “the blue”—the endless stretches of sky she regards as her natural habitat when seated at the commands of her “Tiger,” or beloved fighter-plane. She has run missions in combat, gleefully bombing those minarets sticking up from the sand back into sand.

She also makes us feel how a smug “lone wolf” sensibility can be cracked by the right guy. A guy turned on by her manliness, and by the flight suit she wears as a badge of honor and which becomes at times a rhetorical device and an aphrodisiac. The guy seems to weep often, but that might just be how it seems to her (or it’s Brant’s way of making sure we don’t miss his efforts to circumvent gender “norms”).

Grounded is told entirely from the pilot’s point of view. We neither see nor hear any other characters, and, unlike some one-person narrative shows, the pilot doesn’t try to imitate or take on the manner of others. It’s the kind of one-sided world that one might conjure in a confession. Others are always somehow external to the speaker’s plight.

Not that the couple, soon joined by a baby girl called Sam, don’t have a real shared affection. But when, after giving birth, the pilot tries to resume her former chariot in the blue, she finds that, in the interim, technology has intervened. Manned flights to destroy what she likes to call “the guilty” (as opposed to “the enemy”) are passé. Warfare is now safer for our side and more lethal for the other side. The drones only risk their $11 million price-tag, not U.S. casualties.

The pilot wonders, rightfully, if assignment to the “chair-force” is her punishment for being so unmanly as to give birth to a child. Not so, she’s assured. This is the assignment that will show her to be upper echelon. And she tries to take it in that spirit, though not for a moment believing it to be true.

The vicissitudes of her, at first, useful acclimation to the reality of conducting armed combat in a safe trailer a short drive from her home, near Las Vegas, and then the alarming disconnect between those two spheres of her life, is the drama of the story. A drama that the pilot lives for us in a forthright, can-do, oh my god not this, manner.

The pilot (Elizabeth Stahlmann) (photo: Carol Rosegg)

The pilot (Elizabeth Stahlmann) (photo: Carol Rosegg)

To work, the play needs a sympathetic and earnest teller for the tale. Director Liz Diamond is working with a godsend. Elizabeth Stahlmann, trim, angular, pretty but also what used to be called “boyish,” is the perfect type for the role. And her command of Brant’s language is mostly flawless. What’s more, she’s able to communicate with great presence the non-verbal “ah ha” moments, those moments when—whether posing for a photo with pregnant belly in an open flightsuit, or reacting to something she can see but we can’t, or turning on a dime from mom-face to air force major-face—the pilot becomes personality, not simply function.

And her performance makes manifest the real drama here: The human cost of our technological advances. Brant wants us to consider how the drone technology of surveillance impacts our collective lives (can anyone watch—projected as screens behind Stahlmann—the maneuvers of the car containing her target, the Prophet, and not think of all that footage of the white Bronco on the LA freeways, from way back in the 1990s?), and, in the strong if somewhat stagey climax, to see that “the enemy is us,” but what really comes across is how service to the machine makes us “drones” in the old sense: the expendable worker bee that has no life other than its task in the hive.

Against that unprepossessing life, and her nagging sense that this isn’t what she signed on for, the pilot has only a child and husband whose lives seem remote from her if only because not summed-up by military protocol. At least she has, maybe, the glory of a confirmed kill, until even that becomes personal to a fraught degree. There’s a deep reversal here of the once radical call to “bring the war back home” that Brant didn’t invent and doesn’t belabor. It’s simply there in the material and asks us to think about modern warfare as closer to our day-to-day lives than ever. It must make us uneasy.

The human story here will no doubt disappear in time: robots will drive drones. The other theme—that death from above is available at any moment—reminds me of an epitaph Thomas Pynchon engraves on a nineteenth-century tombstone in Gravity’s Rainbow (1973): "Mark, reader, my cry / Keep thy thoughts on the sky / And in the midst of prosperity / Know’st thou may die."

We need no drone come from afar to tell us this.


By George Brant
Directed by Liz Diamond

Scenic Design: Riccardo Hernandez; Costume Design: Jennifer Moeller; Lighting Design: Solomon Weisbard; Sound Design: Kate Marvin; Projection Design: Yana Birÿkova; Props Master: Karin White; Voice Coach: Ron Carlos; Production Stage Manager: Megan Smith; Casting: Tara Rubin Casting, Laura Schutzel, CSA

Westport Country Playhouse
July 11-29, 2017

A Tale of Two Kingdoms

The strangeness of Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale, now playing at The Yale Repertory Theatre in a sumptuous and stylish version directed by Liz Diamond, is ultimately its strength.  The plot yokes together elements that seem impossibly disparate, almost a test, from start to finish, of the audience’s ability to suspend its disbelief.  The play is generally called “a romance,” not only to differentiate it from comedy and tragedy, but also to indicate its novelistic elements.  The narrative arc of the play is rather complex, and also surprisingly and amusingly cavalier with audience expectations.

Early in the play, Mamillius (Remsen Welsh), the young son of King Leontes and Queen Hermione of Sicilia, says he will tell his very pregnant mother “a sad tale” because that’s “best for winter.”  He’s ripped away from his mother—object of her husband’s insane jealousy regarding his best friend, King Polixenes of Bohemia (Hoon Lee)—before he can tell it.  We never see the boy again as he dies offstage of health complications that follow his mother’s imprisonment for adultery and treason, but in some ways the story of the play is a tale a child might conceive of, with insane rage, exciting escapes, a man-eating bear, a colorful pickpocket, rousing rustic antics, true love, and magical reconciliations, to say nothing of a leap of about sixteen years in the middle.  It’s fun to trash Aristotle’s unities!

Though he’s offstage for the long middle section of the play, Leontes is key to the play’s success.  Here, Rob Campbell manages superbly to humanize a man suddenly driven to autocratic excess.  Driven by a restless jealousy, he destroys his family, losing a child, imprisoning his wife, and sending his newborn daughter to almost certain death in a remote locality.  In almost constant movement about the stage like a man in search of a comfort he once knew, Campbell’s Leontes is a victim of his own sick fancies to an extent that almost amuses him in a rueful, despondent way.  It’s a powerful performance matched by the noble suffering of his wife Hermione as played by Susannah Schulman.  Her trial scene enacts a dramatic staging of the worst sort of spousal dysfunction, an overt display of male tyranny that draws a passionate outburst from Hermione’s staunch friend Paulina (Felicity Jones) in a great confrontation scene where the outraged meets the outrageous.

Sicilia, in Michael Yeargan’s Scenic Design, consists of high walls that move to form corridors, or withdraw to provide open spaces, against brooding darks and raking light and the effective use of silhouettes in Matt Frey’s Lighting Design.  Together they make the University Theater stage a fascinating space, intimate and forbidding as needed.

The crowd-pleasing second half—after that infamous bear scene gets a notable enactment, together with Thomas Kopache’s soliloquy, as Time, delivered with an audacious flair for absurd necessity—takes place mostly in the kingdom of Bohemia.  Presented here as a rustic land of splendid, multi-colored clothes (Jennifer Moeller, Costumes), music (composer Matthew Suttor’s gypsy-like tunes), dancing (even with buffalo heads in Randy Duncan’s light-hearted choreography), and the love in idleness of Polixenes’ son Florizel (Tim Brown) and a stunning maiden called Perdita (Lupita Nyong’o) who seems to be more regal than her station as a lowly Shepherd’s daughter would suggest.  Both actors do a fine job of conveying both the idyllic nature of the lovers’ wooing and the tensions of their status, especially when Polixenes and his courtier Camillo (Tyrone Mitchell Henderson, excellent in an under-appreciated role) spy on their nuptials in disguise.

The comic turns of Autolycus (Luke Robertson) should be the fun of this section of the play, but his scenes are a bit too broad and blustery, not quite up to the nimble clowning Rep audiences have become used to in Christopher Baye’s riotous productions.  That spirit is more in evidence in the scene where two gentlemen (Francis Jue and Adam O’Byrne) report on the reconciliations in the court of Sicilia with “you had to be there” hilarity.

After such comedy, what conclusion?  The final scene is all it should be: a chastened Leontes finds himself rich beyond his imagining, with nearly all his relations renewed.  The theme of winter, as a time of life, is impressed upon us by the aging royal couple exiting as silhouettes.  Their daughter has become a woman in their absence, and now, beyond the rages and the suffering they have endured, they have only their twilight together.  It’s a bittersweet triumph Shakespeare gives us, the lost time hovering over the happy conclusion like a certain little boy’s absence.

The Winter’s Tale, in this impressive production, receives an almost definitive treatment thanks to Diamond’s ability to render the true colors of the play’s varied palette.

William Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale Directed by Liz Diamond

The Yale Repertory Theatre March 16-April 7, 2012