(L to R) Wade Gonsulin, Giovanni Sandoval, Andrea Taylor Rodriguez, Carol Davis. Photo credit – Scott McWhirter.
The Skin of Our Teeth
Written by: Thornton Wilder
Directed by: Kathy Drum
Company: Theatre Southwest
Run Dates: February 20 – March 14, 2015
The Skin of Our Teeth is one of those plays. At the first intermission the kindly gentleman next to me shook his head and left, wishing me “good luck trying to review this one.” At the second intermission I overheard an eager but utterly confused audience member asking the company dramaturg what on earth the play was about and who, metaphorically, the characters were supposed to be. As I left the theatre post curtain I heard one couple say to another couple, “well, that was weird” and then drop all conversation about the play in favour of picking a suitable dessert spot.
From my small, unscientific sample, you’d think Thornton’s Wilder’s The Skin of Our Teeth was some kind of flop as opposed to the 1942 Pulitzer Prize winning play that it is. There’s no question that this allegorical absurdist play that tackles the resilience and failings of mankind in the face of catastrophes both natural and manmade while playing fast and loose with our understanding of time, isn’t for everyone. Truly, how many people can wrap their heads around a seemingly modern New Jersey family having dinosaurs as pets while trying to survive the ice age and invent the alphabet at the same time? Or a mammalian president who presides over feathered and finned constituents but is still human enough to fall for the Vegas showgirl and ignore the impending flood? Or a boy turned terrorist who seems unable not to turn on everyone and everything as if compelled by curse?
Truth is, that as much as the play sounds (and even is) like one of Hunter S Thompson’s more PG rated acid dreams, The Skin of Our Teeth is a bitingly clever comedic play with plenty of pithy things to say about us as a species. Or at least it is when the production is up to the task. But here under Kathy Drum’s laboured and often clunky direction, the humor lands with a thud and the insights fizzle out like wet sparklers.
Set on Drum’s post explosion looking set strewn with ragged books, an island riser, a garbage filled river and an impressionist looking backdrop depicting an inner wall of a house, we are introduced to the Antrobus family. Derived from the name from anthropos, the Greek word for man, the Antrobus’s are our one continuum in this three act time-warping play that has the family facing extinction from the ice age, a great flood and a species clearing war.
There’s the moody Mr. Antrobus (a played with unwavering straight man humorlessness by Wade Gonsoulin) on whom Wilder bestows the invention of many of man’s great achievements such as the wheel and the multiplication tables. Mrs. Antrobus (strongly played by Carol Davis) who’s main concern is keeping her husband and children flourishing. Daughter Gladys (Annabelle Dragas Xanthos expertly channelling a young teen), a young woman who knows that to please her father with her cleverness is the only safe route for both her and her family and Henry (a terrifically angry Giovanni Sandoval) who stopped going by his real name Cain (wink wink) when he killed his brother and developed a scar on his forehead. Also part of the family is Sabina (the Norma Desmond-esque Autumn Woods); a siren of a gal who used to be Mr. Antrobus’ mistress but now is relegated to the kitchen.
Sabina is our guide during this play that refuses to let us forget that we are watching a play. Never mind fourth wall breaking, Sabina not only speaks often to the audience but announces several times that she hates the play and refuses to say the lines or perform certain scenes. Action is broken, stage managers must cajole to get things going again and the audience is left to ponder just what Wilder wanted us to take away from this play within a play within his absurd confines.
But taking anything away from this production is difficult due to Drum’s inability to find the groove in the tone and timing of the piece. Ensemble members playing crowd scenes are shuffled inelegantly off and on the stage. Human sized dinosaur plushies dodder in one place instead of going for the bigger physical gag. Actors yell over each other and the din off stage threatens to distraction. It all feels like a bit of a mess. More importantly however is that Drum seems to have forgotten that while yes, there is a message to Wilder’s madness, it’s via the comedy that we get the message. Other than Sabina, no character shows one iota of camp or irony, which would have been fine had the straight ahead treatment elicited the humour necessary to abide this crazy wonderful script. Instead it feels like the very talented cast were given the incorrect director’s notes for the entire show.
The final moments of The Skin of Our Teeth are always a letdown for me. Wilder can’t seem to resist the gooey moistness of a happy ending. Or as happy an ending as one can expect from this show. But historically I’ve been forgiving of this minor blip in an otherwise astonishing wild ride of a play that so pointedly has us questioning why how it is that mankind persists. We laugh, therefore we understand. Sadly in this production despite the valiant efforts of a stellar cast, we don’t laugh that much and our understanding suffers as a result.
For fans of Wilder – Well this ain’t Our Town, that’s for sure. And if that’s the only Wilder work you’ve seen, boy are you in for a surprise with this show. One that perhaps you need to experience. But while this production of The Skin of Our Teeth boasts a great cast who make the most of a low tech set, it just never gets up to revving speed the way you want and need it to. MAYBE SEE IT
For the occasional theater goer – No, just no. Do not pass GO, do not collect $200. In fact, if someone offers you $200 to see the show, turn them down. SKIP IT
For the theater junkie – If the actors are the building blocks, then the director is the architect. You’ve seen enough to know when great work is being conjured or not. Yes the performances here are grand, but they don’t quite make up for the lack of feeling and comedic cohesion in the production. SKIP IT