In Father On, a dance imbued with the implications of paternity, Scott Wells conjures his father, a soldier. In a monologue, Wells (an ODC resident artist) recalls growing up on an air force bases while the other four men in the cast play “red light/green light” behind him. Wells’s attention is split between telling the story and policing the players to freeze, thus he embodies through performance a multitasking reality of parenting: presence and attention tested. Still describing the military base, Wells remembers playing with other children, as well as his father’s stern parenting style, which he contrasts with his own punishment-free approach.
To “soldier on” means to continue doing something although it is difficult; to continue to do something in a determined way, even when you know you may not succeed. In Father On the unanswerable question follows: What does it mean to be successful at parenting anyway?
In this work, five men (four fathers, one expectant): Wells, Sheldon Smith, Stephen Buescher, Christoph Schultz, and Rajendra Serber, illuminate the challenge of fatherhood with refreshing earnestness. During an opening poker night scene, the men ask each other how fatherhood is really going. “Great…” “Hard…” The game breaks down into thrown chips and spectacle. Viscerally we feel the craze of which they speak as the men slide across the table, throw one another with abandon and eventually wilt in exhaustion. The dance scores throughout the work express play, difficulty, joy and surrender. The crafted games and movement phrases reinforce the importance of community and the relief that accompanies knowing one is not alone in a challenge.
While I don’t have children of my own, Father On dug my well of empathy for parents. The artists employ humor through their personal stories as well as physical comedy in numbers such as the “Sperm Folk Dance.” Through absurd outbursts like the folk dance as well as the hilariously exaggerated enactment of a parenting class, which occurs late in the work, the men seem to ultimately surrender to the high-stakes demands of being a father, both the beautiful and ugly parts of the role.
“You live in Berkeley and use Pampers?!” a dancer squeals. The work is entertaining and honest, offering more human emotion and vulnerability than Wells’s last piece performed at the theater, the acrobatic Parkour Deux, part of the Walking Distance Dance Festival. In Father On when the men turn the zany up to eleven, climbing the walls and unscrewing the lighting gels in regression, ODC theater director Christy Bolingbroke puts the smack down in a staged cameo. “Don’t make me come over there!” she rules.
Sections of play are balanced by a handful of quiet and contemplative moments, some of which feature the artists playing instruments – a guitar, a kid piano. In a duet with four arms intertwined around the same guitar, Wells tenderly shows Scultz how to play, as if teaching a child through repetition and patience. The dance ends peacefully as a slightly discordant lullaby brings the lights down. Everything will be ok.