“Have you milked the mammoth?” Thornton Wilder’s The Skin Of Our Teeth, the wildest play of the season. A preview

Andrea House, Lauren Hughes, Stephanie Wolfe, Jeff Haslam, Vincent Forcier in The Skin Of Our Teeth, Bright Young Things. Photo by Mat Busby.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

The weirdest, wildest play of the season — let’s be bold and call it in advance — is opening tonight on the Varscona stage. It’s not new, though it feels like it might be. The Skin Of Our Teeth was written in 1941, and hit Broadway the following year.

Belinda Cornish, the founder and artistic director of the adventurous indie company Bright Young Things, says she fell in love with Thornton Wilder’s The Skin of Our Teeth the moment she picked up the script and saw the following line. DINOSAUR: “But I’m cold!”

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Yes, my fellow Albertans, the apocalypse is on our minds, now. Wilder’s Pulitzer Prize winner follows the Antrobus family of Excelsior, New Jersey, as they struggle to survive the advancing Ice Age, catastrophic storms in Atlantic City, devastating wars…. There’s a Dinosaur and a Mammoth in the populous gallery of characters. There’s a mouthy maid played by an actor who declares “I hate this play and every word in it…. O why can’t we have plays the way we used to have?” The set itself disintegrates from time to time. 

Dave Horak, who seems to be Edmonton theatre’s go-to director for the unclassifiably off-centre, the mysterious, the difficult to stage — Burning Bluebeard, The Winter’s Tale, The Bald Soprano, most recently E Day, as examples — directs the eight-actor Bright Young Things production. And it’s unusually large (a “mammoth endeavour, pun intended,” fas Cornish puts it) for a small indie company with no government or corporate funding, supported exclusively by ticket sales and personal donations. 

The Skin Of Our Teeth fascinates Horak. For one thing, “it’s not post-war; it’s the middle of the war. And Wilder is so hopeful! That third act is imagining the war being over!”

“That’s what I told the cast the first day of rehearsal: this is a hopeful story! It has the hopeful Thornton Wilder humanity of Our Town. And I just think that’s really hard right now,” says Horak of these doom-laden times. “We’re in the middle of environmental crisis, political (disasters) … the world is ending. And this writer is trying to tell us that humanity is going to continue.” Horak sighs, and smiles, “It’s a hard statement for me to make…. I don’t know if the audience is going to buy it.”

Stephanie Wolfe and Jeff Haslam, The Skin Of Our Teeth. Photo by Mat Busby.

Where Wilder and the contemporary sensibility part company, Horak thinks, is that “there’s no cynicism in him. No irony. And that’s hard for us… That’s one thing I learned from working with (the late director, mentor, teacher) Tim Ryan, who loved the old musicals of the 30s and 40s. You have to pull out irony and cynicism. They’re not in those plays. And if you layer them on, it becomes a comment on the play.”

In a play where time passing might mean 5000 years — Mr. Antrobus has invented the wheel, and he’s working on the alphabet — crazy juxtapositions of scale intrigued both producer Cornish and director Horak. “It’s so big, and so hilariously meta, but it’s also so intimate and real,” says the former. “The relationships are delicate and true, whilst also being outsized and outrageous —it’s a fascinating dichotomy.”

Horak concurs. The Skin Of Our Teeth “goes from great big huge ideas back down to the smallest details, little tiny moments, in and out all the time.” The encroaching Ice Age down to the specific street address of the Antrobus family house, 216 Cedar Street, Excelsior, New Jersey.” Sometimes the characters are huge, “almost cartoons,” and sometimes they’re the specific actors playing the parts (and bitching about the script and the size of their roles).

It’s a play that “insists on reminding you you’re watching a play,” as Horak puts it. And after every crisis, “Wilder goes back to art, knowledge, literature….”

Given its oddities, Horak has found it unexpectedly “easy to stage.” Most of us (me, included) know The Skin Of Our Teeth from university, only on the page. “But it’s a play; it’s meant to be played…. It makes so much sense when we put it up on its feet.”

Says Cornish, “it truly sweeps from the sublime to the ridiculous. From ‘Every good and excellent ting in the world stands moment by moment on the razor edge of danger must be fought for, whether it’s a field, or a home, or a country to this: “Have you milked the mammoth?”   

Interestingly, Wilder wrote much of The Skin Of Our Teeth while he was staying in Montreal, and at the Chateau Frontenac in Quebec City. And, says Horak, he was apparently much influenced by James Joyce’s infinitely challenging Finnegan’s Wake. Horak is curious. “If I ever get a holiday, that’s the book I’m going to open.” 

Meanwhile, there’s a play that wonders, as Horak puts it, “does hope make sense? There’s a pretty good argument for it…, If we can get through the Ice Age, a giant flood, murders, war … there’s hope. It’s gonna be a struggle. And the struggle is part of being human.”


The Skin Of Our Teeth

Varscona Theatre Ensemble

Theatre: Bright Young Things

Written by: Thornton Wilder

Directed by: Dave Horak

Starring: Andrea House, Stephanie Wolfe, Jeff Haslam, Vincent Forcier, Lauren Hughes, Sheldon Elter, Nicole St. Martin, Cody Porter

Where: Varscona Theatre, 10329 83 Ave.

Running: tonight through Nov. 30

Tickets: ensemble.varsconatheatre.com or at the door

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