Tonight’s Agenda: The skin of Our Teeth at the Artists Repertory Theatre; Cocktails at Bible Club
Ten minutes into Artists Repertory Theaters production of, The Skin of Our Teeth, I felt as if I was riding on a train that had run off its tracks and wondered if perhaps this play was too far fetched for my more classical sensibilities. The unconventional ride that playwright, Thornton Wilder takes the audience on seems pretty convoluted and even dizzying at first. Until one realizes that chaos is exactly the mood that Wilder is attempting to impart, as each of his three Acts involves a major impending disaster that the characters survive by “the skin of their teeth.” But instead of a train derailment that becomes a train wreck, this derailment gives you lots of butterflies.
The first act invites one into a traditional appearing home that could be a scene from the old TV show, “Father Knows Best.” But the Anderson family has been replaced by Mr. and Mrs. Antrobus and their children, Gladys and Henry. The antics of Bud and Betty Anderson seem pretty benign compared to Gladys, who lifts her skirt to the audience, and Henry, who changes his name from Cain after murdering his brother. The Antrobus family (a word derived from the Greek word Anthropos, means human or person), take the audience on a “Survivor” challenge through the ice age, a great flood with a Noah’s arc-like escape, and a ruinous world war. Wilder mixes it up even more by placing these disasters during now time, rather than within the actual context and time when these disasters occured. Character’s roles get mixed up, too. In the first Act Mr. Antrobus plays the inventor of the wheel and alphabet; in the next Act he is a Trump-like politician, accepting the honor as the President of the Honorable Order of Mammals. The family maid transforms into a beauty queen and, later, a warrior. Even members of the audience switch roles and become performers in this production, as a stage manager reports that actors have suddenly fallen ill and audience members have been substituted for replacements. There are talking animals, performances by historical figures such as Homer and Moses, and multiple biblical and philosophical references throughout. It is a whirlwind of a production.
Once I accepted this chaotic premise for a play, it was immense fun. Performances by Mr. and Mrs. Antrobus (Don Alder and Linda Alper) were delightful. The family maid, temptress, and warrior—Sabrina(Sara Hennessy)—was irresistible. On the surface one could almost dismiss these performances as a kind of silly and irreverent sitcom. But this is a Pulitzer prize winning play. Sitcoms do not win Pulitzer prizes and Wilder’s writing is too damn clever to be dismissed as a sit com. Rather, Wilder craftily uses humor to make it easier for the audience to swallow the truths his characters reveal about our humanity. While we watch the Antrobuses and their various sidekicks survive the multiple disasters they are confronted with, they do so despite their many human failures: They ignore multiple warnings of impending doom; Mr. Antrobuses political ambitions are tainted by infidelity; the angry Antrobus son, Henry, becomes a Nazi youth-like militant for the opposing army. They are all too human and they are all of us. Today, we are still faced with natural disasters, political farces, and war and we still have survived by the skin of our teeth. It is hard to believe this was written in 1942 because the characters and the story feels every bit as vibrant, fresh and relevant now, as in 1942.
In the final Act, the once buoyant and irrepressible Mr. Antrobus, returns home as a hero after a long and disastrous war. He is tired and despaired and reports, “ I’ve lost the desire to begin again.” But his spirits are resurrected one more time as he sees his first grandchild and discovers his precious books of knowledge have remained intact despite almost total annihilation of his previous home and life. Like Shakespeare, Wilder is a playwright who is so expert that his plays need to be read as well as viewed because one does not want to miss a single word. He has a message that needs to be studied and savored. I plan to do just that.
After the play,I could not think of a better way to ponder the cosmos than returning to the bar, Bible Club. I have been craving a spiritual revival ever since my last anointment of their cocktail, Penicillin, when we visited Bible Club for the first time, a few weeks ago. I like this drink to the point that I do not even consider any other cocktail on the menu. I have found my spiritual release.
Skin of Our Teeth is playing at what my wife and I refer to as the Artists Respiratory Theater. This is an interesting play in every good sense of the word.
Thematically, the play is about man’s continual involvement with disasters (ice age, flood, war) and our willingness to rebuild after disaster and hope the future will an improvement on the past.
1) It is funny. There are comedic moments, both language and acting, that are laugh out loud. Sara Hennessy in particular is a hoot as Sabina, the maid, the mistress and more.
B) It is nicely surreal. Mammoths coexist with dinosaurs and television in New Jersey. Bible characters coexist with real people. The actors talk about the play and it’s author with the audience. The audience participate in the play in the last act. It sounds chaotic, kind of Monty Pythonish, and it works.
iii) The performances are excellent. Don Alder and Linda Alper as Mr and Mrs. Antrobus are very effective as a 5000 year old married couple. And we all know what it is like to be in a relationship that feels 5000 years old. Not you Kerry. The play could be seen as a bit preachy at the end. It requires good actors to rise above what could be a bit of pollyannish speechifying, they instead made the summing up thoughtful and moving. No matter how bad it gets, we keep rebuilding and trying to be better.
Two issues that often plague theater were not present. Everyone spoke loudly enough to be heard. I gave part of my hearing to Led Zeppelin back in college so it is nice when actors speak up. The greatest invention for geezers was the Kindle so I can increase font size. We need a similar technology for live actors. Why no one has invented a device that increases the volume of speakers eludes me. And the footfalls were not echoing loudly on hollow plywood over the sound of the actors.
IV) The staging was particularly clever, with video, sound, and mirrors used to show an encroaching ice age or an impending biblical flood. The play has two 15 minutes intermissions where the stage was rearranged and it was entertaining to watch how the stage was taken apart and put back together. I wonder just what the locking mechanisms are that is used to put the stage together.
Five) This play, by Thornton Wilder, is 73 years old and could have been written today: it covered issues of refugees, climate change, political conventions, the veracity of our leaders, the nature of nuclear family, and the aftermath of war. The more things change, the more they stay the same. A good play leaves you thinking about its ideas for days after viewing and in this Skin of Our Teeth succeeds as well.
It is a long play, 2.5 hours, that flew by but I was thirsty when it was over. It was our oldest son’s penultimate night before he heads back to Boston so we took him and his girlfriend to Bible Club. I wonder if they could rent us a room upstairs. It would make life easier. They had a new food menu and the asparagus salad with a side of focaccia was great.
Their drink menu is excellent, but I again asked for whatever whiskey based drink the bartender could come up with. I forget the ingredients (the downside of a good drink. Or two), but it was fantastic. The best drink is often bartender’s choice.