Review: ‘Beneath My Fathers’ Sky’ at Theatre Row
Thomas Burns Scully
If Disney have taught us anything, it’s that orphans get all the breaks. For some reason if you have one or more absent parents in that universe, you are destined for greatness. Of course, things are more complicated out here in the real world, and it’s no shock that Disney likes to oversimplify things for its family audience. Adoption, abandoned children and all things under that umbrella are a lot trickier in real life, and come with a lot of a heartache and difficult questions. But there is also, underneath it, that slight romance and mysticism, that other question that aways comes up when the possibilities are infinite: what if there is a fairytale to this after all? Probably not… but you never know. Zara Phillips’ new show ‘Beneath My Father’s Sky’ (currently part of the United Solo Festival at Theatre Row) explores all this and more. She tells the true story of her own adoption, of her four parents, of her own children, she searches for answers, and, when she has no other choice, fills in the blanks with fantasy.
The story Phillips tells here begins roughly at the time of her adopted mother’s death. She explains her relationship with her, and, by contrast, her difficulty relating to her adoptive dad. She talks to her old imaginary friend, the biological daughter her adopted mother could never have. She tells us about her mother’s death, her father’s stoicism, about meeting her birth mother, about all the questions that an adoptee has, and the pain that comes from not being able to answer them. Throughout all of this runs her search for her biological father, an Italian named Vittorio whom she knows next to nothing about. She details her methodical, and sometimes not so methodical, attempts to reach him. Everything gets related back to her own emotional life, explaining why the answers are important, and sometimes throws a song in to the mix. The show ends with her finding answers to some questions, and still pondering others.
In my review for Rhet Rossi’s ‘This is the How’ I spoke about the difficulty of giving criticism to a personal story. How do you comment on someone’s dramatic interpretation of their own life? Well, if you look below, like this. Phillips’ story, divorced of the context of a one-woman show is quite touching. Her life is interesting and there’s a lot to tell. However, within her theatrical framing of it, there are issues. For one, while she has the bold candor to get up on stage and tell her story, it seems to take her a while to settle in to a comfortable rhythm. For the first fifteen minutes she doesn’t seem comfortable talking to the audience. Eventually she settles down and relaxes, but she never seems to lose the shadow of the crown of nerves.
Many of her staging choices are also very distracting. The device of her imaginary sister is sweet, but her manner of relating to her feels extremely forced and contrived. And the Tinkerbell sound effect that accompanies her sister’s arrival each time is corny and downright annoying. Her songs are nice, simply constructed and played on guitar, but well sung (Phillips has been a professional singer for decades and worked with many of the great and good, including Bob Geldof and Run DMC). However, they could do with more context, introduction and explanation. As it is now, they are nice set-dressing, but they could potentially be emotional punches in the face if framed correctly. This happens later when she mimes dancing with her father to the strains of ‘Moonriver’, it’s a moment that really hits home, but there could have been many more of these throughout.
Essentially, this play is a swathe of good intentions, mixed with an incredible story, but marred by a rickety execution. Phillips’ story is genuinely engaging, her observations are insightful and enjoyable, but when it comes to show-craft she comes up short. As it stands, all the elements are here and ready to be a great piece of theatre, but they are currently all jumbled up in a messy, occasionally contrived format. It feels like a work in progress wanting for a strong, firm directorial and dramaturgical vision to iron out the kinks. As it is, directors Eliza Roberts and Eric Roberts don’t seem to have provided that. Which is a shame, because I’d love to see this story told properly. I would love for this piece of theatre to be as amazing as Zara Phillips’ life.
‘Beneath My Fathers’ Sky’ has just finished its run at the United Solo Festival at Theatre Row. For more details and future performance dates please see unitedsolo.org and adoptionunmasked.com. Zara Phillips’s fan page can be found on Facebook, and on Twitter at @zaramusic.
This review was written by Thomas Burns Scully, a New York based writer, actor and musician. His work has been lauded in Time Out NY and the New York Times, and his writing has been performed on three continents. Other accolades include a BAFTA US nomination, and the Max Fischer Award from the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. He is generally considered to be the thrifty person’s Renaissance man.
Follow him on Facebook (as Thomas Burns Scully), and on Twitter (@ThomasDBS)