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March 16, 2007
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Volume 35
Issue 11
 
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Excellent ensemble effort energizes Wilder's The Skin of Our Teeth
Excellent ensemble effort energizes Wilder's The Skin of Our Teeth
by Jacob Clark - SGN A&E Writer

GreenStage, Seattle's free outdoor Shakespearian theatre company, is presenting a spirited production of Thornton Wilder's The Skin of Our Teeth at Magnuson Park Building 30, as a part of their American Classics Series. The cast is having a blast doing the play, and their joy is infectious.

I wasn't prepared to enjoy the show, I must admit. I've felt since studying it in college, that it's a pretty thin play although the text is important as a precursor to the Theatre of the Absurd. The play opened on Broadway in 1942, during the height of World War II. The Theatre of the Absurd emerged in post-war Paris. As the play won the Pulitzer Prize, and was immediately translated into French, writers of the Absurd school such as Beckett and Ionesco may have been influenced by its experiments. But its optimistic tone was certainly not adopted by the Existential Absurdists.

The optimism of the piece, the idea that mankind will survive, even if we do so by the skin of our teeth, appealed so strongly during the early dark days of the War, that the play's experiments, which may have doomed it in a different era, were accepted as part of the whole package. The characters in the play often break out of "character" to bemoan their lot as actors in the play. This "actor playing a character" motif was a new concept, as was the mixture of the present with the distant past. In the play, the Antrobus family survives the Ice Age, the Great Flood and the evils of modern warfare. Mr. Antrobus invents the alphabet and the wheel and is elected president of the Order of Mammals before going off to war. Mrs. Antrobus supports her husband in his efforts and invents a few things herself.

The Antrobus children, Gladys and Henry, are blatantly comedic characters until the third act, when Henry comes home psychologically damaged from the war and Gladys emerges from the bomb shelter with her new baby. The family maid, Sabina, travels through the eons with the family, and provides hysterical high-pitched commentary on the action of the play.

The company of actors won me over, and I emerge from the production with a newly discovered appreciation of the play as living theatre. From the leads all the way down to the walk-ons, this show hops. Ben Cournoyer is a case in point. He manipulates a dinosaur puppet in the first act, plays a television producer and a drunk later in the play, and fills all his roles with keenly observed detail, giving one-hundred-and-ten-percent to every moment he is onstage. Ray Irvin plays a television news anchor and joins the ensemble for wonderfully executed hi-jinks later on. Patrick Lennon is wonderful as the telegraph boy who ultimately gets to deliver a singing telegram, and joins the ensemble for the final, poetic close of the play.

Amelia Meckler wears a Wooly Mammoth costume, and through gesture and turns of the trunk of the beast, creates a through-line for the creature that matches any of the human stories being enacted. In the second act, she appears as a fortune teller who is both highly entertaining and deadly serious.

Phillip D. Clarke and Erin Day are wonderful as Mr. and Mrs. Antrobus. Clarke is particularly charismatic and focused throughout his performance, which swings from high comedy to tender lyricism. Day gives a compelling, deeply felt performance as Mrs. Antrobus. Together, these two play off each other so well, I want to see them paired again.

As Gladys, the Antrobus' daughter, Julia Beers plays the perfect little girl like Judy Garland on uppers, to hilarious effect. Jack Lush invests his Henry, the Antrobus' son (who changes his name from Cain to Henry) as a Cainesque bully early on and as a suffering soul after the war. Like Day, he gives a deeply felt performance which draws the audience into his tragedy.

Nicole Vernon gives her Sabrina just the right amount of despair to remain comic, that is, her despair as the "actress playing Sabrina" is authentic and especially funny because of the authenticity. Vernon shows a wide range of talent as she explores every nook and cranny of her character.

In presentation, the actors play with the energy and enunciation of the period (early 1940's) rather than trying to contemporize the acting style, and this is a happy strategy to find the center of the play. Director Peter Buford is to be commended for the dedication, charm and energy of the performers. Mr. Buford's blocking is perfect, there isn't an unmotivated cross in the entire three acts, and the breakneck pace of his players is wonderful. Each act is over in 45-50 minutes, leaving the audience hungry for more.

Jennifer Dugan's costumes are true to the period and colorfully comedic. Laura Garcia's props are also true to the period, yet very practical, and they add their own special charm to the overall production. Lighting Designer Steve Cooper uses footlights which make the actors glow, and gives the play the feel of a bygone era. Maggie Lee's puppets are adorable. Last but not least, Stage Manager Dennis Kleinsmith plays the stage manager of the "actors playing characters" sections of the play, runs the tech and re-sets the stage for each act. Thornton Wilder loved stage managers and had a habit of putting them to use as actors in his plays, and Kleinsmith rises to the occasion like a real trouper.

Finally, trouper is the word to describe each performer in the play. I'll take this kind of ensemble effort over the library-like approach to the classics that one often experiences in more well-heeled companies, any day. And the actors of Seattle would all do well to see this show as an example of what ensemble acting is all about.

GreenStage presents all its plays free of charge, to be accessible to everyone. They do accept donations, and survive somehow on those donations. It is an egalitarian approach to audience development which, in itself, would distinguish this company from all the rest. For information and directions see www.greenstage.org or call 206-748-1551 through March 24, Thursdays through Sundays at 7:30 p.m.

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