A CurtainUp Review
The Skin of Our Teeth
By Elyse Sommer
As Nicholas Martin rescued Camino Real from its secondary place in Tennessee Williams' oeuvre, so director Darko Tresnjak has caught everything that is fine about Wilder's 1942 tragicomedy. The interruption of a play to address the audience, while no longer a theatrical novelty, seems fresher and more apt in this play than many another.
Whether you've seen Skin before or come to it for the first time, you'll find it as timely as anything being written. Nor will you have difficulty relating post World War II plagues and disasters like AIDS, global warming, the upheavals in Eastern Europe to further painful lessons for what Wilder called the "as yet unwritten fourth act" to the Antrobus family's struggle to not only survive the Ice Age, floods, famine and war but to sustain the spirit to do so.
American audiences have generally responded more enthusiastically to Our Town than The Skin Of Our Teeth (though both plays, as well as the novel The Bridge of San Luis Rey won Pulitzer Prizes). But director Darko Tresnjak, like many Europeans, loves Skin. His passion is not only evident throughout this highly original and unflaggingly lively production but irresistibly catching.
Mr. Tresnjak is as inventive as Mr. Antrobus (whose inventions for making life worth living include the wheel, the alphabet -- and beer) and his wife (whose contributions to the good life include deep frying and the apron). His directorial inventions begin with the curtain, a scrim bearing images of the galaxy with the earth at its center which at the beginning of each act becomes a shadow play slide show accompanying a News of the World broadcast bringing us up to date on past and current events. (the director previously used this technique to excellent effect in his production of Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead, linked below).
Accustomed to the grandeur and large casts of operas, Tresnjak comfortably steers his main players and the large ensemble through the three main events and adds a whole Noah's Arc cast of enchanting puppets. An elephant and dinosaur shiver in the Antrobus Excelsior, New Jersey home during the Ice Age scene. In the second act, set in Atlantic City, we have bits of dancing worthy of a Broadway musical, and more puppets -- a dancing Mr. Peanuts and pairs of whales, giraffes, birds (don't ask, there's almost more than the eye can take in). Most importantly, the director and his players, capture the Fellini mood of this scene, with all the signs of further disasters evident amid mad gaiety.
The insertion of local allusions that are par for the course with many WTF comedies, actually work rather well with the script's final play-interruptus during which the stage manager explains that non-acting members of the company will have to take over for actors stricken by food poisoning (with Rocha ad libbing that it was probably from something bought at Mazzeo's, a local food market).
All the actors skillfully navigate the absurdist events . One can easily recognize any number of politicians in Bill Smitrovich's Mr. Antrobus. The key women, as Les Gutman pointed out in his review of the Papp Public Theatre's Central Park production (linked below) not only play competitive roles but tend to compete for top acting honors. In this case, excellent as Kristine Nielson is as Mrs. Antrobus (her "save the family" speech as the new First Lady of the Ancient and Honourable Order of Mammals, Subdivision Humans is priceless), top honors go to Kali Rocha. I've seen and admired this young actress in numerous other roles, but her Sabina is a career-making coup-de-theater. Marian Seldes, one of the most renowned members of the cast, has a grand time with the minor part of the fortune teller. Her tendency to go over the top is a good fit with this part. Emily Bergl and Thomas Sadoski are okay if not outstanding, she as the Antrobus daughter and he as the son marked by the violent gene of Eve's evil son Cain.
The spoiler in the previously referred to production reviewed by Les Gutman, was the set. Happily, this is far from the case here. David P. Gordon has done splendid work -- from that lively scrim, to the inside-outside view of the Excelsior home to the razzle dazzle Atlantic City scene. Rui Rita's lighting, Kurt Kellenberger's sound design and Linda Cho's strikingly on the mark costumes round out the superior production values.
To sum up, this Skin of Our Teeth is as funny as it is tragic, as hopeful as it is gloomy. Like Mr. Antrobus, when he's reunited with his books after the war, it's a play that will leave you feeling "We've come a long way. We've learned. We're learning." And to quote his motto of the new year, "Enjoy Yourselves" -- go see it.
Consumer Tips: If you have kids aged twelve or older, by all means bring them along. The almost three hour kaleidoscope of the Antrobus family's saga of survival through history's epic disasters will fly by and yet leave a lasting impression. It's a fine introduction to entertaining, meaningful theater. Leave time, to also visit the new exhibit at the Williams College Museum (a short walk from the theater). "The Last Takeout: Paperworks by William B. Schade" is not only magical in its own right but almost works as a companion piece to Wilder's play. Using handmade paper, Schade has constructed 170 objects based on the story of Noah (renamed "Noha" by the artist) and painted them with glittering gold gilt finishes. The human and animal characters have the same whimsical spirit as Mr. Tresnjak's puppets. There's also an amazing fully set dinner table.
LINKS TO MORE WILDER AT CurtainUp
Skin of Our Teeth -- outdoors
Over and Over -- musical based on the play
Wilder's The Matchmaker
For Curtainup's review of Mr. Tresnjak's previous WTF directing coup, Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead,go here.