In Carl Holder’s Charleses, three generations of men attempt to define and pass on the essence of their own identity and the masculinity that comes with it. After the breakdown of that generational cycle, the world expands beyond their immediate family in a wider search for meaningful patterns, rules to live by, and more distant Charleses.
The first set of short scenes, all snapshots of the eldest Charles (Richard Toth) exposing his young son Charles (Mike Shapiro) to little bits of everyday life, comes off as light fun. There is no particular point hidden in any one of them that hints at larger consequence. It is only later, when we see the same scenes played back among the next generation, as the middle Charles tries out the same routine on his son Charles (Fernando Gonzalez) to slightly different outcomes, that the weight of the earlier scenes is felt. The true strength of Charleses can’t really be pinned to one moment, instead it lives in ritual repetition and rhythm.
The explicit connection to the holy beat that these men are meant to march to is first revealed at a sandwich counter. As a snare drum bangs out a beat, the eldest Charles recites a wildly specific sandwich order then watches his son attempt to follow. It is crisp, rehearsed and reeled off in a steady voice at the cadence of a train. To do this thing correctly is one part of a larger masculine ideal that includes shaving correctly and basic carpentry that all Charleses are meant to embody. The sandwich order ends up as part of a larger hymn to the way of the Charles life, a song whose chorus is literally “Charles!” chanted over and over again, and includes lines like “Basic knowledge on a wide range of topics/ Numerous skills and all of them practical.” To order a sandwich like a man is one of many extensions of manliness rooted here, in the ritual repetition of Charles and Charlesisms.
This attitude toward masculinity is echoed with diminishing returns as subsequent Charleses subvert bit by bit the original’s idea of male identity while asking themselves what it is that they want to hold onto from previous generations. The idea that men pass down their thoughts on what it means to be male and are either affirmed or disappointed when their sons accept or reject those thoughts is not a new one. Occasionally, Charleses leaves its strange rhythm behind to stay put in well-tred territory (the gravity of being handed a razor by your father) and let us watch the minor ups and downs of life pass by with limited consequence. Fortunately, there are enough moments when the play gets specific and allows individual moments to have their own significance — the pride in a correctly ordered sandwich or perfectly parked car, a school presentation on a great-grandfather who tried but failed to save the local woods — that we are able to engage deeper with the great generational clockwork the play as a whole is pointing to.
The show gets a bit muddy as it leaves the lives of our initial Charleses further and further behind, but the direction of Meghan Finn maintains the ritual rhythm at the heart of the work. All three actors effectively transition between ages, time periods, and characters. Shapiro, in particular, is able to give personality and life to characters, even those who only appear in the show for a couple of lines as part of the passage of time, and his silent celebration of a parallel parking success is one of a few beautiful little moments that he makes count. Peyi Wong’s set is a wonderful tool for this type of storytelling. It manages to be simple, versatile and efficient, presenting itself first as a simple home workshop, then allowing the paths of generations of men to flow through it, interacting with landmarks that they create, transform and reorient as generations go by.
If the play has a major weakness, it is the lack of a feminine presence. I am not referring to the lack of actresses; aside from one line about a great great grandmother dying after giving birth there is literally no acknowledgement of the female world that must be existing right alongside the one we’re witnessing. It is obviously an intentional choice to leave women out of this story, but in a play that deals so closely with the things we inherit from our ancestors and the imperfect way we understand them, the complete absence of motherhood felt baffling. I was left wondering if the play and its characters might have been able to more clearly define masculinity if they did not exist in a single-gendered vacuum.
Our American world continues to be made up of men attempting to put their stamp on things, to find answers to personal questions then pass them down as lessons to be memorized rote. And each subsequent generation will continue to tweak those lessons and ruin the order their fathers looked to put in place and watch repeat. Charleses walks us through this cycle of optimism and disappointment, and succeeds in reminding us that it isn’t over and never will be.