University of Victoria pulls off tough Skin of Our Teeth

What: The Skin of Our Teeth

Where: Phoenix Theatre, University of Victoria

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When: To Nov. 23

Rating: 4-1/2 stars (out of five)

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Thornton Wilder's The Skin of Our Teeth is one dog's-breakfast of a play.

Given its absolutely crazy plot and self-conscious cornucopia of giant themes, any revival of this 1942 play has to potential to stumble. So it's a credit to UVic's theatre department that its new production works so well. Directed with clarity by Linda Hardy, this theatrical extravaganza boasts lovely production values, strong student acting and — happily — strikes just the right tone.

Most of us know Wilder's Our Town. The Skin of Our Teeth, a lesser-known play (which also won a Pulitzer Prize), is more experimental. It's about George and Maggie Antrobus, a couple who live in New Jersey with their two children. They've been married for thousands of years. They have dinosaurs for pets.Their son Henry appears to have murdered his brother, Cain and Abel style — even his teachers call him Cain.

We meet the family just as wall of ice descends south from Canada (beautifully conjured up in this production by cracking ice sounds and a white mist). A gaggle of refugees show up to take shelter at the Antrobus's home, including Moses and Homer.

The Antrobus's maid Sabina — played with brio Saturday night by the talented Tea Siskin — declares the show is "all about the troubles of the human race". And it is — it's as though Wilder, with bunyanesque ambition, aimed write the play to end all plays.

One apocalyptic disaster after another is survived: an Ice Age, a flood (George Antrobus packs both humans and animals into an ark) and a global war.

The Skin of Our Teeth is stuffed with chin-stroking symbolism. The name Antrobus derives from the Greek for "human". George frets about making sure his collection of books (that is, civilization) survives each catastrophe. The play is capped by a scene in which characters quote philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle.

To save it all from devolving into preachy mush, Wilder leavens his earnest themes with humour. Sabina wise-cracks with earthy pragmatism. As well, reminiscent of Our Town, Wilder regularly breaks the fourth wall by having actors directly address the audience. Sabina complains about her lines and even refuses to enact one sequence. A stage manager announces several actors have suffered food poisoning. This adds a winking air of sophistication to the proceedings. Wilder not only wants us to remember his jumbo-sized allegory is make-believe, he wants us to stand back and think about it, too.

The costumes and set are terrific. The thrust stage of the Phoenix's Chief Dan George Theatre is dominated by a wonderful backdrop of cream-coloured rags, upon which different images are projected. The costumes — which, appropriately, are slightly surreal looking — are well cut and stylish. Particular notable is the Act II boardwalk scene, for which everybody wears circus-like garb in red, white and blue. Credit goes to movement coach Jacques Lemay who with bold theatricality has overseen everything from baton-twirling majorettes to the retro-style dance sequence launching the final act. Equally notable are expertly-constructed puppets of such animals as crows and wooly mammoths, manipulated with skill.

A large cast has worked hard — and it shows. Markus Spodzieja and Julie Forrest each summoned the larger-than-life stage presence required to make George and Maggie Antrobus work. Much detail has gone into smaller roles, whether it be a salaciously panting dog or a party-hearty conveners yelling inanities.

This production benefits from a unified vision. It's all about balance. The show's look is broadly theatrical, yet at the same time stylish and rooted in reality. The acting is heightened yet not overly broad. The humour is brought out, but not so much as to detract from Wilder's allegorical intent. This juggling act is no easy feat; the cast, crew and creative team deserve credit.

No doubt some will find The Skin of Our Teeth too strange for their taste. In some ways it does seem dated: overly literal, earnest, a bit awkward. Wilder wanted to create cutting-edge theatre, influenced by Brecht's theories. Seventy-one years later the cultural aesthetic has shifted — we view it differently.

That said, the play remains relevant. Wilder's Ice Age could very well be a metaphor for global warming. Maggie's impassioned speech about the false depiction of women in the media foreshadows contemporary feminism. And the notion that history repeats itself is true today as it ever was. 

achamberlain@timescolonist.com

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