Tuesday, April 14, 2009

the skin of our teeth

Hiya. Just saw an amazing play last weekend down at the Aurora Fox called "The Skin of Our Teeth" by Thornton Wilder. The show is utterly bizarre, hilarious, yet pointed and smart, and does a great job of keeping the audience off-balance while succeeding in bringing the story around in the end.

(Huh. It's almost like someone should have awarded this guy a prize of some sort...)

Like Thornton Wilder needs my compliments. Anyway, i wrote a review for the Post which should be out this Thursday. However, as loyal viewers of this space, here's a preview for ya. :)


The audience’s first clue that “The Skin of Our Teeth,” showing at the Aurora Fox is going to be a bit off-kilter is apparent even before the house lights go down. At the top of Act One, Charles Packard and Chandra Gregg’s amazing set is representative of a suburban living room, but the walls are oddly angled and disconnected from one another, the windows and doors stretched like something from a Tim Burton nightmare. The program helpfully informs us that “The play you are about to see is surreal,” and goes on to describe what that means.

Suffice to say, the first time a dinosaur appears on the lawn peering in the window and complaining about the cold of the impending ice age, soon joined by a mammoth huddling by the fireplace in the living room, most audience members should have a pretty good understanding of the word “surreal.”

That, or they’ll be double-checking their medication dosages.

But understanding what’s going on in a linear sense isn’t really the right way to approach a play like Thornton Wilder’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 1942 comedy on the human condition. The play is like a lunatic ride on a Moebius roller-coaster designed by M.C. Escher, piloted by an erudite Daffy Duck on a handful of mescaline. And true to Wilder’s predilection for breaking theatrical conventions, the family’s maid Sabina, played with glittering, mad optimism by Megan Van de Hay almost immediately gets caught on stage with no more lines to say, as another actor “misses” an entrance.

“I hate this play,” she confides to the audience, later adding, “I’ll say the lines, but I won’t think about the play. I advise you not to think about it either.”

Wilder’s self-deprecations aside, there is actually plenty to think about here. As Mr. and Mrs. Antrobus (John Arp and Billie McBride) discuss his day at work, where he invented the wheel, mathematics, and is currently working on the alphabet, it dawns on us that they are in fact meant to represent the first humans, Adam and Eve as it were, as well as the entirety of the human species. When Mrs. Antrobus snaps at her newly-renamed son Henry to “Put down that rock! You know what happened last time!” we don’t need to be told that Henry’s previous name was Cain.

Not to give too much away, but the three acts of the play find the Antrobuses dealing with three great catastrophes: the aforementioned ice age, a great flood, and a war. And while the play taken as a whole isn’t linear in the sense of a traditional story, it does loop back on itself repeatedly, ultimately revealing a sense of hope for the human species even in the face of a seemingly endless string of calamities.

Superbly directed by Bev Newcomb-Madden, the all-star cast doesn’t miss a beat from top to bottom. Van de Hay as Sabina (the Rape of the Sabine women is but one of many literary and biblical references peppered throughout) is our sometime-narrator, our tenuous link to some sort of reality, taking great delight in jumping back and forth between the character and a not-at-all amused observer of these deluded people. As the family’s confident, cheerful patriarch, John Arp is a joy to watch on stage, making even the most absurd lines and situations believable. Billie McBride as his wife has a lovely, sardonic dry wit, the perfect long-suffering spouse: “It’s our 5000th wedding anniversary. I regret every moment of it.”

Their offspring, Gladys (Misha Johnson) and Henry/Cain (Ben Dicke) start off as rather dim-witted, goofy children but transform smoothly as the play progresses. Dicke especially has a challenge in Act Three, morphing into the embittered perpetrator--as well as victim--of the war.

A segment between him and the elder Antrobus is pulled off with heart-rending beauty, expressing a genuine horror at the violence humans routinely visit on each other.

There is endlessly more here to see and discuss, but have no doubt: the payoff is well worth letting Mr. Wilder’s wild ride take you where it will.

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