Hope and the doggedness of the human race underscore the menagerie of trial and tribulation that plague the Antrobus Family in Thornton Wilder’s comedy-drama, “The Skin of Our Teeth.”
The Department of Theatre and New Dance’s production opened March 15 and runs at 8 p.m. March 21-22 and at 2 p.m. March 24 in the University Theatre (building 25).
This production of the play operates on multiple planes of reality and is rife with references to our current political climate. Through a bizarre story – but an allegorical one, if the viewer prefers to see it as such – laced with metatheatrical moments, this show will force the audience to forfeit any notion about what’s actually going on.
No matter the way it is viewed by the audience, however, the underlying message of the show is clear: humanity has survived for millennia, sometimes by the skin of its teeth, so there is always hope that it will endure.
Ostensibly, the story focuses on Antrobus Family that has lived in Excelsior, New Jersey, for more than 5,000 years. That’s not to say the family is a long-lasting dynasty of Antrobuses – rather, the Antrobus clan are a suburban family of four who are literally 5,000 years old. Together, they are rocked by Ice Age, flood and warfare while the best and worst qualities of our species compound their affairs. Each challenge will change the family for better or worse, but they always move on in spite of their experiences.
“Make no mistake, this is a comedy-drama,” says Theatre Department Chairman Bernardo Solano, director of the production. “But there are so many meticulously composed physical and visual humor sequences that it takes incredibly skilled comedic actors to pull off. We have students of varying skillsets, so we’ll do the best we can, but it’s a hard play to do.”
Solano says much of the play’s comedy arises from the characters’ behaviors and the anachronisms found throughout the script. For just a taste, consider that a pet dinosaur and wooly mammoth accompany the Antrobus family in the first act; the family’s patriarch, George, works to discover the alphabet and wheel while consulting with minds the likes of Moses and Homer; and the housemaid Sabina breaks out of character to complain as an actress about the play she’s in.
By the way – did we mention that the Antrobus Family is more than 5,000 years old?
“The show asks a lot of its audience to suspend its disbelief,” Solano says. “We’re asked to exercise our imaginations in very active and complicated, but also sophisticated, ways,” Solano says. “It’s a sophisticated play in that it trusts that the audience will receive and accept the play happening on all of these different levels.”
A crucial cog in what propels “The Skin of Our Teeth” forward is its use of metatheatrical devices. Characters including, but not limited to, Sabina will break the fourth wall several times throughout the play; the theatre crew running the show will call out from the back of the theatre; and the actual stage manager of the production will get wrapped up in a moment when reality breaks down and the play becomes the last-minute rehearsal for an entirely different play.
“The play acknowledges that things in it aren’t real, so that leads to all of these instances where it becomes a sort of play-within-a-play,” Solano says. “That also just makes people stop believing in what’s going on, but in a fun way. At a point, everyone just breaks character and it becomes a collection of actors on a stage in Pomona.”
Satire, farce, burlesque, vaudeville: “The Skin of Our Teeth” is all of these things and yet none of them in earnest. When it premiered in 1942, it was written for a general audience and reflected the popular comedic devices of its time, but those aren’t all that the script encapsulates for posterity.
When Wilder penned the play in the early 1940s, the world was emerging from the grips of the Great Depression by (Do we need to say it?) the skin of its teeth while simultaneously slipping into all-out war once again. Written for an audience of its day, reviewers of the time saw obvious parallels in contemporary works such as James Joyce’s 1939 “Finnegans Wake” and the German Expressionism movement.
As a 2019 production, the Department of Theatre and New Dance’s version of “The Skin of Our Teeth” will hold true to the spirit of the script while making its own references to comedy giants the likes of the Marx Brothers and Abbot and Costello, but also kung-fu movies and the modern political climate.
“Even if the script was written for the world of 1942, when the play was originally produced, it supports our ability to tweak it in ways that modern audiences will understand best,” Solano says. “People shouldn’t be surprised if they recognize things like immigration and the refugee crisis being referenced or the rise of politicians such as Donald Trump.”
But if there’s one thing the world of 1942 has in common with the world of 2019 or any year before or since, it’s that calamity and collapse seem imminent in some way, somewhere on the planet. That makes the play’s message – that our species’ will to survive is what will save us, as long as we have hope – all the more relevant, if not also poignantly so.
For more information or tickets, visit www.bit.ly/cpptndtix.