By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
It’s strange, it’s playful. And it gets right to the heart of the dark, chaotic, freak-out of the present moment.
That’s The Skin Of Our Teeth, the high-spirited, anarchic, category-resistant 1942 “comedy” (for want of a better word) by America’s great theatre subversive Thornton Wilder.
In three acts, and through two intermissions, we follow the fortunes of the Antrobus family of Excelsior, New Jersey through one catastrophe after another — the Ice Age, devastating storms in Atlantic City, wars. Radical lurches in the climate, the migration of refugees, the extinction of animals … ring a bell?
The cast includes a fortune teller, Moses, Homer, a dinosaur, a woolly mammoth. Eons pass. Mr. and Mrs. Antrobus have been married for 5,000 years. Plato, incidentally, argues that leaders must have self-control and a balanced mind if the world is to work properly. If that doesn’t speak to the craziness of the present moment, what does?
This bizarre epic, alternately anxious and whimsical, is brought to us by Bright Young Things (an indie that borrows the London tabloid nickname for the elite artsy bohemian crowd of the 1920s). Their mission? The airing of mid-century masterworks we don’t very often get to see. The Skin of Our Teeth, unlike Wilder’s classic Our Town, certainly qualifies. And Dave Horak’s clever, brazenly theatrical production and its cast of top-drawer actors show us what we’ve been missing: a wild experiment which brushes off convention like so much lint off a coat of many colours. It’s alternately anxious and whimsical, mythical and sometimes cheeky about being mythical.
It not only breaks the fourth wall (that theatrical convention that lets us be voyeurs on other lives) but it demonstrates that breakage. The walls (and the windows) won’t stay put. And neither will the exasperated actor playing the maid Sabina (Andrea House), who can’t stand the play (“I don’t understand a single word of it anyway.”) or the comedown of her role (“I took this hateful job because I had to …. Look at me now.”).
The apocalypse is already in progress as the play opens. A beaming announcer (Sheldon Elter), armed with slides, an old-fashioned clicker and a projection screen, presents the dramatic lead news of the world story of the day: “the sun rose this morning at 6:32 a.m.,” as reported by a public-spirited American citizen. Uh-oh.
It’s August and New Jersey is getting colder. Dogs are sticking to the sidewalks, and they’re burning pianos in New England. Chez Antrobus, a freezing dinosaur (Cody Porter) is clamouring at the door to get in, along with a woolly mammoth (Nicole St. Martin) and a cluster of refugees. The family is awaiting the arrival of the ebullient Mr. Antrobus (Jeff Haslam), who’s just invented the wheel (he’s already invented the lever), and he’s closing in on the alphabet.
We meet the implacable Mrs. Antrobus (Stephanie Wolfe), inventor of the apron, and the two Antrobus children: Henry (Vincent Forcier), a kid with a murderous mean streak (his name used to be Cain), and Gladys (Lauren Hughes). Sabina, the eternally seductive “other woman” who’s forever giving her notice, has let the fire go out.
Act II happens on the Atlantic City boardwalk. Mr. Antrobus, who’s been elected president of The Ancient and Honourable Order Of Mammals, Subdivision Human, has awarded Miss Atlantic City 1942 to Sabina, now the hostess of the Bingo Hall. When a terrible storm comes up, he herds the animals in his audience, two by two, onto a ship.
In Act III of a play written in war-time, a seven-year war has ended. Mrs. Antrobus and Gladys (and a baby) emerge from the detritus of their suburban house. And Mr. Antrobus, back from the war, deflated and depressed, declares “I’ve lost it…. The desire to begin again.”
Horak opts — this is indie theatre — for a stylized, improvised look that has its own low-budget theatre jokes and captures the oddball jauntiness of the play. He and Bright Young Things artistic director Belinda Cornish are credited with the design, lit by Daniela Masellis. And the handsome costumes, which identify the period in witty fashion, are courtesy of the Citadel.
As Mr. Antrobus, Haslam beautifully charts the evolution into despair and back again of the confident, hearty but naive head of household who doesn’t quite realize that it’s his wife who’s holding the world together. The wife and mother, with her prim apron and fierce defence of the idea of family through every crisis, gets a formidable performance from Wolfe as Mrs. Antrobus. “I could live for 70 years in a cellar,” she declares, “and make soup out of grass and bark without ever doubting that this world has work to do and will do it.”
Her nemesis is Sabina, the eternal seductress and upstager, always undermining the family and lobbying on behalf of herself. It’s the diva role Tallulah Bankhead played in the 1942 Broadway premiere. Whiney and sullen in Act I, and posturing extravagantly in red stilettos in Act II, House’s amusing performance exudes the sense of a character with one eye ever on the audience, trying on possible versions of herself to see which one is more profitable.
Forcier is genuinely disturbing as the ever-violent uncontrollable son, who can never see a stone without wanting to hurl it at someone’s head. And the sweetness of Hughes as Gladys can’t conceal the Mrs. Antrobus-in-the-making of the character.
Is surviving the apocalypse an oxymoron? Sit back (not too far back if you want to catch the quick ‘40s cadence of the actors) and ponder the possibility of optimism in times like ours. Mr. Antrobus has his books. Sabina, a repository of worldly negativity (“it’s better to be dead”), has the movies to go to. And we have the theatre — and a weird, sprawling play that says something about surviving catastrophe. Maybe it’s by the skin of our teeth — but still….
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: through Nov. 30
Tickets: ensemble.varsconatheatre.com or at the door