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A CurtainUp Philadelphia Review
Etched in Skin on a Sunlit Night

You put too negative a value on pain.— Jules

While in your presence my scope is limited by your lackluster imagination.— Jonsi
Etched in Skin on a Sunlit Night
Phyllis Johnson and Jered McLenigan
(Photo credit: Seth Rozin)
Kara Lee Corthron’s unusually named play, Etched in Skin on a Sunlit Night, is in World Premiere at Philadelphia’s InterAct Theatre Company. With its social activist agenda, InterAct is a natural for developing the work of emerging young playwrights with messages, and the company is to be admired for seeing talent and living its principles so well and for so long. Of course, risk is involved when a theater company takes chances.

The play’s start is promising. When, in the prologue, you see a husband invite his wife to carve her name on his chest —and she does— it has your attention.

It’s 2008. Jules, a black woman artist who ran away to Iceland years ago, lives with her Icelandic investment banker husband and their young daughter. For some reason Jules won’t call her mother on the phone. An expat whose hopes are pinned on Obama, she spends her days watching TV, punishing herself, and painting pictures of the lead singer of an indie band, about whom she hallucinates.

The actors, including a little girl (Aria Jones), do a great job with a challenging, confusing script that’s filled with earnest and jejune pronouncements like: "Give me your pain." Phyllis Johnson and Ian Bedford are powerful leads. Akeem Davis (Warton) in a sketchy role, demonstrates his considerable powers of concentration, and Jered McLenigan as Jonsi, a verbally bizarre hallucination, reveals whole new aspects of his range.

Because it’s structurally all over the place, the play comes off as a long hodgepodge of impulses — a concoction of race matters, masochism, Obama-hope, financial collapse, mom-issues, obsession, art, anarchy, longing for expiation, and Iceland.

In a rough and turbulent play, two short sex scenes go to unintentionally humorous lengths to preserve a coy modesty. And it’s a stretch when an unlikely visitor on an unclear errand is immediately accepted and invited to engage in dangerous games. Issues that start out as being important lose potency, while former non-issues cut loose and take center stage. Near the close, secret motivations are blurted out rather than cagily revealed, and an apparently steady character does an about-face and goes criminally out of control.

Yet under the direction of theater visionary Whit MacLaughlin, and with fine designers, the show has its moments: At one point Jules actually licks the image of candidate Obama on TV. There’s cool, intriguing music with accompanying visuals of audio waveforms. Projections also include shadows, occasional brief translations of Icelandic dialogue, and wonderfully painted, harsh and bloody takes on illustrations from a traditional Icelandic children’s book that’s unconsciously racist.

This production illustrates the risk that InterAct takes. Not every new theatrical effort will result in an unmitigated success. Etched in Skin needs to get a handle on itself. It’s hard to make sense of a psychological drama that gets so contorted it starts to look like an attempt at theater of the absurd.

Etched in Skin on a Sunlit Night
by Kara Lee Corthron
Directed by Whit MacLaughlin

Cast: Phyllis Johnson, Ian Bedford, Aria Jones, Jered McLenigan, Akeem Davis
Scenic Design: Tim Brown
Lighting Design: Maria Shaplin
Costume Design: Rosemarie McKelvey
Sound Design: Robert Kaplowitz
June 1- 24, Opening June 6, 2012
2 hours and 15 minutes with one 15 minute intermission
Reviewed by Kathryn Osenlund based on 06/13 performance. InterAct Theatre Company, Mainstage at The Adrienne, 2030 Sansom Street
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