Allegorical comedy brings apocalypse, ice age, giant puppets to UVic's Phoenix Theatre

What: The Skin of Our Teeth

Where: Phoenix Theatre, UVic

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When: Opens tonight, continues to Nov. 23

Tickets: $14 to $24 (250 721-8000)

 

Thornton Wilder’s play The Skin of Our Teeth may be 71 years old, but it’s as relevant as ever, says its director.

“Look at the state we’re in globally, right? That’s one of the reasons it’s still so fresh,” said Linda Hardy, who oversees a revival of The Skin of Our Teeth opening tonight at the University of Victoria’s Phoenix Theatre.

Wilder is best known for his Pulitzer Prize-winning Our Town, an oft-produced play about the fleetingness of human life. Less well known (despite also having won a Pulitzer) is his 1942 play The Skin of Our Teeth. An allegorical comedy with capital-letter themes, it examines mankind’s perpetual struggle to endure in the face of overwhelming odds.

Avant-garde for its time, The Skin of Our Teeth first presents the Antrobus family in a modern New Jersey locale that, somehow, coincides with the beginning of an ice age. As a wall of ice descends south from Canada threatening the existence of all humans, refugees — including Homer and Moses — arrive at the Antrobus home to take shelter.

Apocalypse follows apocalypse. Act II concludes with a Noah’s Ark-style flood. Act III follows the aftermath of a terrible global war. Despite such grim backdrops, The Skin of Our Teeth concludes on a hopeful note, with Mr. Antrobus (the name derives from the Greek for “man”) regaining his will to continue.

The UVic theatre department’s production of The Skin of Our Teeth boasts a huge cast; 24 student actors tackle 63 characters, with some of the principal roles being double-cast. Animal characters (yes, there are talking woolly mammoths and triceratops) are played by actors manipulating giant puppets. Movement coaching was provided by noted Canadian choreographer Jacques Lemay and assistant director Chari Arespachochaga.

“Those kids have worked for a solid six weeks. Just learning how to make the puppets breathe took them a couple of weeks,” Hardy said

A UVic theatre professor, Hardy has wanted to direct The Skin of Our Teeth ever since she was a college student (she once considered writing a thesis on the play).

The universality of its themes make it evergreen. Written during the Second World War when allied forces’ victory was anything but guaranteed, Hardy notes Wilder’s intent was to boost the spirits of his fellow Americans. Today’s threats to mankind (global warming, nuclear arms buildup) loom as large as ever.

For student actors, says Hardy, a fundamental challenge is striking the right tone. Wilder’s characters are larger than life, so performers must dominate the stage. At the same time, a delicate balance must be struck between exploring the play’s emotional truths and bringing out its comedy.

“For young actors, comedy is the hardest thing for them to do,” she said.

achamberlain@timescolonist.com

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