For the second time this season, American Repertory Theater has a man in dog’s clothing center stage. Whereas J.M. Barrie’s sheep dog in “Neverland” was as dumb (and mute) as my own pup, Odd-See in “Father Comes Home From the Wars (Parts 1, 2, and 3)” waxes the free-flowing, stylized verse of Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Suzan-Lori Parks. It’s at once silly, startling, and profound—which can also be said of the rest of the three-hour production, directed by Jo Bonney.
Before we meet the vocal Odd-See, and before we meet his owner, Hero, we are introduced to the chorus of Less Than Desirable Slaves dressed in anachronistic garb (think: high tops and crocs) as they take bets on whether or not Hero will choose to go to war with the Colonel, his boss-master. The stakes are high for our Hero; his betrothed Penny (her name piling on to the numerous hat tips to the Odyssey) is reason enough to stay, but the Colonel, dangles the promise of freedom over his head in exchange for time served with the Confederate army—a cause as contradictory as they come. Matters are soon complicated as it’s revealed that this isn’t Hero’s first offer of freedom. In the past, promises went unmet even as Hero obliged the plantation master’s unsavory requests at the cost of his own morals and friendships.
It is hardly a spoiler given the name of the production that Hero does in fact go to war in the second act, and return in the third. In the second act the simplistic set becomes even more barren but still beautiful for, “A Battle in the Wilderness.” Here we are offered a snapshot of Hero’s time at war where he and the Colonel interact with Union captain, a captured soldier. After intermission,“The Union of My Confederate Parts,” Hero returns to the now-polarized plantation proudly toting a name he has chosen for himself, Ulysses (here the nods to ye olde Odysseus begin to get trite) and yielding the Emancipation Proclamation.
More than the homage-heavy plot, it’s the tonal shifts between each segment of the production that keep audience members on their toes. Both the first and third act are highly stylized; the fourth wall is consistently broken, the ensemble relishes in (perhaps overly) repetitive verse, and, of course, there is a big, shaggy, talking dog in the third. Following a naturalistic, heavyweight second act, Odd-See’s enthusiastic appearance is a bit of much-needed momentary comic relief, or, for at least one audience member on opening night, the yellow snow ruining the whole production. After final bows, the young lady hurriedly wrapped herself in her layers and stormed out of the Loeb Drama Center, telling her friends along the way that she was in utter disbelief and highly offended by the appearance of the personified pup.
However, I believe that more than the silliness of Odd-See, it was the challenging parallels drawn between Hero and his dog, and the Colonel and Hero that upset the young woman. Loyalty, ownership, freedom, and self-worth are prominent and often uncomfortable themes explored throughout the three acts, but it felt brave and ever-complex, not disrespectful. By craftily and boldly juggling these important themes—and a handful more—with “Father Comes Home From the Wars (Parts 1, 2, and 3),” Suzan-Lori Parks has delivered both a grounded, oft-unheard slave narrative and a perennial tale of the struggles of being human.