Masculine Mediocrity: "Father On" Doesn't Show True Fatherhood

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Photo by David Papas

Almost a decade and a half after Susan Faludi published Stiffed and in the long wake of innumerable studies on the crisis traditional masculinity seems to be undergoing in an age when millennia of patriarchy may be experiencing the first febrile shudders of senescence, Scott Wells and Sheldon B. Smith have choreographed a piece titled Father On, which they advertise as "a dance about 21st-century fatherhood."

The theme seems rich with social, psychological, political, and technological possibilities, yet a few topics that immediately spring to mind -- the growing population of stay-at-home dads, the twentieth anniversary of the Family and Medical Leave Act, concerns about gender neutral child-rearing, parent-child relationships maintained post-divorce or forged post-second/third/fourth partner, parenthood in a post-psychoanalytic world, gay adoption -- receive not a drop of consideration. However, if one desires an authentic evening out with an overgrown scout troop of middle-aged men doing folk dances inspired by spermatozoa, look no further for satisfaction.

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Photo by David Papas

The piece begins with Wells, Smith, Stephen Buescher, and Christoph Schutz seated around a table piled with poker chips. Rajendra Serber arrives late and has to sit in the toddler chair. The men are not playing poker, after all, but Go Fish. It's not wild enough to appeal to aficionados of the absurd, yet too staged to be forgiven as improvisation gone wrong. This is reality: more insipid than we could have imagined.

The show is structured around monologues and games. The monologues address fatherhood in serious but underexplored personal narratives, such as Wells's account of his military lineage and his unconventional decision to become a dancer, or with forced humor, such as Schutz's energetic reenactment of a vasectomy and Smith's foray into ventriloquism in a dialogue with a baby doll about cursing.

Buescher's description of childhood embarrassment growing up in a black neighborhood with a white adoptive father was a moving exception. The games include chess, charades, red light green light, tag, and catch, and serve as physical interludes that leave the stage in a disarray of spilled cards, scattered confetti, strewn poker chips, and so on.

The trouble with the piece is that fatherhood cannot truly exist in a vacuum. In the absence of offspring, the men themselves take on the role of children, seeming to relish throwing tantrums, climbing furniture, and trashing the stage. Mention of mothers is almost nonexistent, except as hinted in a nagging phone call or when ODC Theater director Christy Bolingbroke makes a cameo appearance to scold the performers that the audience expects a show. Smith makes the analogy between fathers playing golf on Saturdays and the choreographic process as a kind of leisure or pastime. Though no doubt cathartic to produce, the result reduces men to their most ludicrous organ, punctuated with a squirt of silly string that lies, white and inert, on the floor of the stage for the hour's duration. The piece is perhaps best characterized by the scene in which the men compulsively attack the stage and set with drills relieved of their drill bits, announcing that they are "fixing things." Freud couldn't have done better.

Scott Wells & Dancers presents the world premiere of Father On at 8pm Dec. 5-8 at ODC Theater, 3153 17th St, S.F. Tickets are $20-$25; scottwellsdance.com.

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