'Skin of Our Teeth' brings humor to universal dramas

December 8, 2011

By Matthew Hauptman
The Miscellany News

skin at vassar.jpgAbove, the talented cast of "The Skin of Our Teeth," a radical play written in 1942 by Thornton Wilder, rehearses in the Martel Theatre.
Thornton Wilder's 1942 play "The Skin of Our Teeth" resonated with theatergoers looking toward an uncertain future--a future marked by economic depression, global war and eventual recovery.

"There is a universality to Wilder's work that allows this play to become deeply personal, as if the situations on stage could play out anytime, anywhere," wrote Akari Anderson '12, who plays character Sabina, in an emailed statement. "The Skin of Our Teeth" will be performed at the Martel Theatre from Dec. 8 to 10 at 8 p.m.

Christopher Grabowski--professor of Drama on the Frances Fergusson Chair of Arts and Humanities, director of Theater, and chair of Drama--is directing the play. Grabowski chose "The Skin of Our Teeth" largely because he was struck by its relevance to the present day, never having read the play before.

Grabowski explained that this play demonstrates a keen understanding of what it means and feels like to live on the brink of crisis and disaster. The play does entail some rather bleak themes but is also rife with hope, not to mention humor. As Grabowski said of Wilder, "He was an optimist at heart. He believed that progress was possible."
Wilder's play tells the story of George and Maggie Antrobus; their two children, Henry and Gladys; and Sabina, the family's maid in the first and third acts, and a beauty queen temptress in the second act. Many of the characters in "The Skin of Our Teeth" adopt dual roles like Sabina, making her transition not unusual for the experimental play.
The play's action takes place during the period in which it was written--the early 1940s--but is full of allusions and anachronisms that invoke biblical and mythological canons. Accordingly, the characters' roles as archetypes are emphasized by their association with biblical and classical personalities.

Wilder's play is deeply immersed in the canon, but also pays homage to a variety of traditions other than the Judeo-Christian. In other words, while Wilder may have hailed from a Christian background, he saw the Bible as one mythology amongst thousands. His efforts to engage with the past, moreover, do not constitute an effort to rewrite it.
As Arianna Gass '13, another cast member, wrote in an emailed statement, "Even though Wilder's theatrical language is subversive (in the sense that it revolts against classical modes of representation), I don't think his message is."

Added Gass, "The play is about learning how to begin again--not by rewriting those classic and sacred texts, but by learning from them, acknowledging that the knowledge they contain is relevant even thousands of years after they were written; that by being human we have a cultural heritage, and it's influence is ultimately creative and positive."
Wilder's optimism is evident in his witty (and frequently absurd) dialogue, but also in his oscillations between sincerity and silliness. "[This play] turns on a dime sometimes," said cast member Steven Wolff '13.

If Wilder's writing is distinct and unique in its light touches, then it is also recognizable in its unorthodox nature. As Gass pointed out, "A lot of his plays are 'metatheatrical'--they draw attention to the spectacle in progress. Just as you are pulled in to the emotion or plot of the scene, Wilder draws you out. This is, in part, what keeps his plays from being hokey, sentimental."

This is most evident in the characters' awareness of their own presences on stage. Throughout "The Skin of Our Teeth," characters directly address the audience and make quips about the play of which they are a part. "There's [this] huge sense of whimsy in it," said Assistant Director Cat Ramirez '13.

"The Skin of Our Teeth" may be experimental, but it is still very much in line with Wilder's other plays. As Gass argued, "This play is not only continuous with his other works, but could be characterized as the culmination of his creative endeavors."

Wilder's fear that "The Skin of Our Teeth" would be his last play before going to war as a lieutenant colonel may shed light on the play's cumulative quality. As Anderson noted, "This play was being written on the eve of the Second World War, and you can definitely feel the text grappling with issues of war and humanity during times of crisis."

The play has been challenging but immensely rewarding for the cast and crew. Emily Wexler '14, who plays Gladys Antrobus, felt heartened watching this large-scale collaboration come to fruition.
"We've created a real theatrical community," Wexler said. This theatrical community has entailed a committed group of students and faculty working together to create great art. "One of the most amazing parts of working on this show has been getting to work with faculty members, who have pulled out all the stops in terms of design."
As Anderson went on to add, "Their attention to detail is incredible, and [Drama Department Technical Director] Paul O'Connor's set design has really been a huge part in giving us a zany, larger-than-life world to play in. Chris has really brought out the bold theatricality of the piece, which is incredibly rewarding as an actor. The show never stops moving, and neither do we--it's really been a lot of fun."
The play has certainly been fun for all those involved but also quite challenging, not least because of its complexities and nuances. "[The Skin of Our Teeth]" is so dense and rich that we keep finding more and more layers to peel back, which is challenging, but has kept us engaged in the piece as we discover central themes together," remarked Anderson.
"This production is wildly imaginative, fun and otherworldly, but also presents a very real humanity that I think the audience will recognize."
Said Grabowski, "The story is absolutely basic to who we are."

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