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Thursday, June 13, 2024

Theatre review: The Skin of Our Teeth is indeed an ambitious project

It is surprising how contemporary this septuagenarian initially feels

With its large cast of characters, it should come as no surprise to the see an institution of higher-learning like Langara College’s Studio 58 undertake a production of Thornton Wilder’s The Skin of Our Teeth. Providing pretty much every student with an opportunity to be on stage, its grand themes, and sometimes complex scope, also make for the prefect learning opportunity.

Taking its name from a phrase in the King James Bible, the biblical references don’t end with its title, with the stories of Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Noah’s Ark and Moses all making appearances. There are a multiple of other anachronisms, including the appearance of the Greek poet, Homer, a dinosaur, and a couple of woolly mammoths. Wilder even throws in the invention of both written language, and the wheel.

This wild amalgamation is all wrapped inside both an oncoming ice age and global warming, and deals in such topics as refugees, global conflicts, and even our intrinsic pursuit of pleasure. It is important to remember it all takes place inside settings in the north-eastern United States in 1942.

For a play written 75 years ago, at the height of World War II, it is surprising just how contemporary Wilder’s play initially feels. But then, Wilder broke just about every theatrical convention at the time, and even described his own work as “the most ambitious project I had ever approached”.

And if it was a bold undertaking for the playwright, it is just as audacious for both a theatre company to undertake, and an audience to digest.

But while act one in this production felt fresh, despite its age, the second (combined with the third in this outing), starts to wear thin. With so much thrown at us, it is difficult to buy-in to its conclusion, and by the time we reach its life lesson, it’s difficult to be compelled to action by characters we don’t really care about.

Despite a very quick waning interest in act two, under the direction of Sarah Rodgers, there are a couple of notable performances, and the production is exquisitely detailed.

In one of the best performances of the night, Erin Palm is saucy, outspoken, and opinionated as the maid, Sabina. Photo by Ross den Otter.
In one of the best performances of the night, Erin Palm is saucy, outspoken, and opinionated as the maid, Sabina. Photo by Ross den Otter.

Leading the group is a luminous Erin Palm as the maid, Sabina. Saucy, outspoken, and opinionated, Palm relishes in her character’s ability to break the fourth wall, and help narrate the action. Like other members of this cast she also proves that even the smallest of looks can make a scene.

Paige Fraser does great work as daughter, Gladys, and Jessie Liang and Taylor Long make the most of their roles as fortune tellers.

Of course, it’s hard to ignore Stephen Meek, Ella Storey and Hannah Pearson as the cigar-smoking dinosaur and two woolly mammoths.

David Roberts’ set design reconfigures the Studio 58 space with impressive results, and just wait until you witness the set’s transformation by this hard-working cast.

Sheila White’s costumes are a delight, and Emily Cooper’s projections provide an almost Monty Pythonesque feel to her picture postcards.

The live Foley is a fun touch, but the addition of musical interludes from Matthias Falval & Emily Jane King (and the cast), while charming, did add to the play’s run time.

Ultimately, while a visually stunning production, the denseness of Wilder’s ideas and writing makes it a difficult trek for audiences beyond the first act. As a learning experience for its cast, it is second-to-none.

The Skin of Our Teeth by Thornton Wilder. Directed by Sarah Rodgers. A Studio 58 Langara College production. On stage at Studio 58 (100 W 49th Ave, Vancouver) until February 18. Tickets are available online at Tickets Tonight.

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