The first thing you need to know when you walk into the theater is this: There’s an apocalypse happening.
Actually, there are three apocalypses. Also, dinosaurs, mammoths and Homer happen to inhabit the same time period as bicycles, Moses and the telegram. Our gallant protagonist, Mr. George Antrobus (portrayed by Andrew Burnap DRA ’16) has recently invented the wheel and developed the alphabet; meanwhile, his family, accompanied by their maid and sometime-seductress, Lily Sabina, struggles to navigate through a formidable slew of disasters, both natural and man-made.
And if that’s not enough for the audience to handle, members of the cast occasionally drop character to act as “themselves,” creating a series of faux-disturbances such as food poisoning, missed cues and flat-out refusal to play certain scenes.
Welcome to Thornton Wilder’s “The Skin of Our Teeth,” a Pulitzer Prize-winning play that casually kicks down the fourth wall before two cast members are even onstage at the same time.
From the moment the theater lights dim, the creative team spares no expense to communicate the satirical, comedic, even absurd attitudes of the play: a ’40s-style newscast cheerily notifies the audience of the exits in the theater, solid walls teeter and tip over in an impressive feat of versatile stagecraft engineering and dark curtains are stripped away from the understage to expose movement of the props and backstage crew. Delicate wire-frame mammoths and dinosaurs boast such intricacy and attention to detail that they nearly steal the scene. Meanwhile, playful stage lighting complements the metafictional havoc the actors and director wreak using the script itself. In one memorable decision, Carolina Ortiz Herrera DRA ’17 uses strobe lighting to illustrate the end of the world (perhaps it was a questionable decision, too — while effective at simulating a Biblical end of days, it also had audience members grimacing and covering their eyes). And even if all of history seems to be happening at the same time, the costumes anchor the audience comfortably in early 20th-century New Jersey or post-apocalyptic America as the scene demands.
A stellar cast, comprised almost exclusively of Yale School of Drama MFA candidates, leads the audience through the end of the world several times over, bringing to the stage nuanced portrayals of the troubled members of the Antrobus family and the strange characters that they run into along the way. Melanie Field DRA ’16 captivates the audience as the melodramatic Lily Sabina, the family maid who occasionally moonlights as a beauty queen and burlesque performer. Field seamlessly picks up and discards her character’s accents as easily as she does her various wigs, dropping effortlessly into the persona of a toughened war survivor or acting out a version of herself, a “Melanie Field” fed up with performing the same incomprehensible play night after night. Suddenly, a play with more than seven decades under its belt becomes much more personal as Field leans against the doorframe of a theater exit, smoking a cigarette and expounding on the miseries of education in showbiz. “I came to grad school because I wanted to be an artist,” she grumbles to the audience before the show resumes.
Paul Stillman Cooper DRA ’16 stood out among the cast for his portrayal of the complex Fortune Teller, a character neither completely artificial nor completely human and alive, who prophesies the impending Biblical flood amid a group of naysaying burlesque dancers. Stick-skinny and outfitted in gypsy-esque clothes, Cooper’s Fortune Teller lashes out at the excess and hedonism about him with a satisfying level of cynicism and wit.
Director Luke Harlan DRA ’16 took on an ambitious project in directing “The Skin of Our Teeth,” a play that requires not only extensive consideration of stage, understage and audience space, but also calls for the director himself to appear onstage at certain points to “rescue” the production from its wayward actors. And while the actors who address the audience seem to barely scrape through by the skin of their own teeth, this production of Wilder’s play masterfully blends philosophy, social satire and playful absurdity in a refreshing look at the potential of modern theater.