Author: Elwyn Pratt
Within the very first half-hour of the Occidental theater department’s latest production, an anxiety-ridden Mrs. Antrobus looks outside her living room window and exclaims, “oh, there’s that dinosaur and mammoth on the front lawn again!” In a later scene, those prehistoric pets are singing along with the likes of Madame Curie and Moses. “The Skin of Our Teeth” is chock full of absurdist elements like these, and by the end of the play the audience comes to forget the word “normal.”
The play opened at Keck Theater on Nov. 29, which happens to be just a month before the Mayan Apocalypse will destroy our world and all of its inhabitants. Okay, maybe the world won’t actually come to an end. But the timing of this production is very appropriate for its theme: Doomsday.
Written 70 years ago by Thornton Wilder, “The Skin of Our Teeth” is a meta-theater with big themes, and Occidental’s production, as interpreted by director Laurel Meade, takes the opportunity to up the zany without making the production seem too bloated with self-consciousness.
The play begins with a video clip of a news report, just like the original. But this production’s broadcast was cleverly updated for a 21st century audience and gave humorous nods to Occidental itself.
The reporter, played by senior Becca Scott, provides a sort of exposition, though it leaves the audience clueless as to when and where they actually are. The alphabet has just been invented? A giant wall of ice is slowly advancing and crushing buildings in its path? Guest video editor Brennan Beyt arranged a hilarious slideshow to accentuate Scott’s lines.
Then the curtains rise to reveal 216 Cedar Street, Excelsior, New Jersey. It is a pleasant home with a white picket fence, the kind of home where one would expect a typical mid-20th century nuclear family to reside. Scenic designer Aubree Cedillo seemed to have intentionally and ingenuously designed a set that looks like a set, straight out of a Jabberwocky-type wartime drama.
The Antrobus family’s maid, Sabina (junior Kristina Gustovich), anxiously moves about the living room, sweeping furniture with a feather duster and fussing about how Mr. Antrobus is late from work. Maids in most family dramas would serve the function of nothing more than a one-dimensional stock character, someone who occasionally announces someone at the door or delivers a note. But here, Gustovich kicks off her brick house performance by blasting straight through the fourth wall.
The audience quickly learns that Sabina hates this play. She explains that in the end we’ll be just as clueless as she is about what the story actually means. But she plays the part anyway, delivering every other line with a hilariously sarcastic flourish. When she points to a door as an obvious cue for Mrs. Antrobus (senior Mandi Bossard to enter the scene, she is late. Then the play becomes completely meta as the “stage manager” (junior Shanequa Hammock) walks onstage to apologize to the audience and argue with Sabina.
As the confusing plot develops, the family decides to adopt a host of nonsensical refugees, among them Professor Sigmund Freud and Homer. The scene’s conclusion gives us a condensed portrait of time and space as they all huddle together, waiting for the cold to consume them. And that is just the first act.
Jake Mallove (senior) delivers some of the best lines of the production as Mr. Antrobus, bringing emotional punch to the narrative as the embodiment of Man and subject of all the triumphs, temptations and trials of mankind’s history. At the beginning of the second act, he is somehow been elected as leader of all mammals, and it is hard to miss the parallels to modern-day political corruption that follow.
It’s Doomsday all over again, except this time everything is a little different. The setting is now Atlantic City, a sunny boardwalk with a casino and a cast of eccentric sinners. A storm is brewing, and the teller of doom that in the first act was a dark backdrop and an eerie, apocalyptic humming is now in the form of an old lady (a brief but incredible performance by senior Emma Blickenstaff). The fortune teller warns us of our impending doom, lamenting that it is not our future but the past that is the real mystery and tragedy of life.
Sabrina, who has transformed into a flirtatious Ms. Atlantic City, seduces Mr. Antrobus and nearly causes him to end his 5,000-year-old marriage. But ultimately, Mr. Antrobus chooses family over pleasure and saves them from destruction.
The third act, while re-writing the setting once again, serves as the satisfying emotional arc that every final act should deliver. The Antrobus’ are now the survivors in the aftermath of a devastating war. Which war? It doesn’t matter. The house from the beginning is now all but a pile of graffiti-ed wreckage. The characters clash for the final time, but their grit and spirit of survival shine through, like always, until the curtains close.
“I’m tired, but I’m restless,” says Mr. Antrobus with a heavy sigh. It’s clear that the Antrobus family (whose name is Greek for “human”) and all of its persistence is supposed to represent humanity. But the play offers several interpretations of who we, the audience, really are.
Are we the citizens of Atlantic City, who just want to wear fezes and party as the world crumbles around us? Are we the fortune teller, who feverishly warns about our ultimate doom but is nonetheless content to sit back and watch the world burn? Or are we Mr. and Mrs. Antrobus, who ultimately want to sit down with some books in the middle of our living room floor and try to find some meaning in life?
“The Skin of Our Teeth” takes the intriguing storytelling of “Our Town”–and Wilder’s–and gives it the spectacle it deserves. The theater does not often tackle the themes of the human condition so boldly, and it’s hard to know what to take out of a play like “The Skin of Our Teeth.” But that might be the point. Humanity is one giant question mark, and it is brilliantly fun to watch.
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