Sunday, May 19, 2013

Thornton among the dinosaurs

I don't often catch student efforts, but I was intrigued by BU's recent production (it closed last weekend) of Thornton Wilder's The Skin of Our Teeth, an extravaganza seen about as often as the prehistoric fauna that romp through its first act.  Indeed, I've only seen the script fully mounted once before, almost thirty years ago - for reasons obvious (mammoths and dinosaurs are required, along with a tidal wave and a glacier) and not-so-obvious (more on that later). In short, it's the kind of script you almost have to turn to students these days to see at all; and so its appearance at BU felt like the perfect cap to a local season largely given over to Wilder on stages both large (the award-winning Our Town) and small (the intriguing Little Giants).

Alas, the production (directed by BU éminence grise Sidney Friedman) slightly disappointed - which probably shouldn't have surprised me. On Broadway, it's true, it was a hit, but that was during wartime (it's about crisis, and depends on a crisis atmosphere) and with people like Tallulah Bankhead, Frederic March, and Montgomery Clift in the leads. Not that the kids at BU weren't talented - they were. But only two actors were exactly right for their roles, and others went wrong in ways that made me wonder if the culture isn't closed off to much of Wilder's curious meditation on human history.

There is, of course, a sense of timelessness hanging over his biggest success, Our Town - and questions of divine purpose likewise loom over the novel that put him on the map, The Bridge of San Luis Rey. Wilder clearly had his eye on the long view (even the juvenilia of Little Giants hinted as much) and hence the cyclical "plot" of The Skin of Our Teeth stretches for eons, and mashes together the Ice Age, Noah's Flood, and World War II with something like the arch tone of a caveman cartoon in The New Yorker (or, if your prefer upper-lowbrow to lower-highbrow, an episode of The Flintstones).

This tells you that in one way Wilder's concept is almost too simple: he follows the travails of the archetypal Antrobus family (anthropology + omnibus, get it?) as they encounter the threats to human existence that have recurred in various forms throughout history. But as if self-conscious about the artifice of this gambit, the author embeds his action in a welter of postmodern frames, breaks "the fourth wall" repeatedly, and finishes off the whole thing with a direct lift from Finnegans Wake (the audience is supposed to exit the theatre as the play returns to the top of its cycle, to continue on forever, like the dreams of Humphrey Chimpden Earwicker).

If all these high-low/low-high cultural contrasts sound like too much for the bookwormish Wilder to bring off - well, there are many who agree with you. But I have a soft spot in my heart for The Skin of Our Teeth, probably because in its modern-lite way it treats questions that few dramatists have ever attempted to answer - the persistence of human evil probably being first among them (the Antrobus scion, Henry, was formerly known as Cain - so you know what happened to his elder brother). Indeed, I'd argue that beneath the script's Thurber-ish surface, there are very dark (and yes eternal) conflicts roiling; the trick for any production is to suggest them beneath all Wilder's parlor-game wit and twee quotation.

And at least two of the Boston University actors managed to do just that. Lorne Batman made a polished, genteelly steely Mrs. Antrobus (although she could have hinted at even more ferocity when saving the bad seed in her brood). And as Cain/Henry, Sam Tilles found a believable arc from spoiled, impulsive brat to - well - Hitler. Wilder's other conceptions of human character seemed to confound the young cast, however. His Mr. Antrobus - inventor of the wheel, serial adulterer, and silent mourner of the lost Abel - is built of a long series of suppressions, culminating in something close to despair, but there was little sympathy for (or comprehension of) his slow-burning fuse at BU. Likewise the author's polyglot temptress, Lily Sabina - whose name derives from two competing legends of femininity, the sexual demon Lilith, and the rape victims known as the Sabine women - seemed to flummox the relentlessly sex-positive mindset of the cast. To them, the very idea that sexual temptation could be a dishonest snare seemed alien, and apparently director Friedman didn't know what to do about that.

Of course perhaps the eternally closeted Wilder is himself a dinosaur - wrong about sex, as well as the nature of men and women (certainly his "timeless" domestic arrangements seem quite dated). Then again, perhaps modernity is in denial regarding a few basic facts about the species, and we ignore Wilder's wisdom at our peril (certainly the climate change crisis is reminiscent of his Ice Age scenario). At any rate, the production did showcase some outstanding, resourceful design by BU students. Costumer Chelsea Kerl actually pulled off a winsome dinosaur and mammoth (amusingly mimed by Zoe Silberblatt and Grace Woodward), and Courtney Nelson imaginatively evoked not only the collapsing Antrobus homestead, but also Atlantic City avant le déluge, and even the war-torn Western Front, helped immensely by Katy Atwell's lighting and Yi-Chun Hung's sound. Clearly if the cultural cycle ever returns to The Skin of Our Teeth, the technical talent is out there to put Wilder's vision over.

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