Wilder times: ‘Skin of Our Teeth’ is an absurd show at the right moment

This show is dino might!: The tragicomedy “The Skin of Our Teeth,” now playing at the Polonsky Shakespeare Center in Fort Greene, features dinosaurs and mammoths alongside Biblical figures and a suburban family.
for Brooklyn Paper
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This show’s time has come.

A play written during World War II and featuring talking dinosaurs and mammoths is the perfect play for the era of Donald Trump, says its director. Thornton Wilder’s classic tragicomedy “The Skin of Our Teeth,” now playing at the Polonsky Shakespeare Center in Fort Greene, was written in a time of crisis that feels very of the moment, says director Arin Arbus.

“By looking at what was happening around him in the late ’30s, and by looking backwards in time at what was happening thousands of years ago, he wrote a play which feels like one of the most relevant and urgent pieces of writing for this moment in America’s history,” said Arbus. “There’s something eternal in it.”

The anachronistic show follows a suburban New Jersey family throughout the span of mankind, as they survive the Ice Age, the biblical Flood, and a horrible war that destroys civilization. Wilder wrote his Pulitzer-winning show in 1939, in response to news from Europe refugees fleeing the then-coming war, and many of its elements feel familiar, said Arbus.

“In his day, not unlike now, America was turning away boats of German Jewish refugees, sometimes sending them to their deaths,” she said. “And it appears prophetic ... anticipating climate change, our current fractured nation and today’s refugee crisis. The play asks questions about how a nation chooses a leader and grapples with hope in the face of despair.”

But the show blends those serious topics with silly jokes and absurd elements, in which the actors argue with the stage manager and the audience. The key to the production lies in embracing all of those elements, from artifice to comedy to tragedy, said Arbus.

“I hope to honor the unstable style of the play, which shifts suddenly without transition from a kind of Brechtian theater, in which the emotional climax of a scene is broken and commented upon, into absurdist comedy like ‘Have you milked the mammoth?’ into Greek drama,” she said. “This is crucial to unlocking the play.”

With all those elements, the production could easily spin out of control, but Arbus says that danger is the most exciting part of working on the show.

“I hope to work with the actors and composer and designers to discover the play’s slippery style and tone, moment to moment,” she said. “That’s probably one of the most challenging aspects of tackling the writing; it’s the meat of the play and what’s so thrilling about the writing.”

“The Skin of Our Teeth,” at the Polonsky Shakespeare Center [262 Ashland Pl. between Fulton Street and Lafayette Avenue in Fort Greene, (866) 811–4111,]. Through March 19, Tue–Sat at 7:30 pm; Sat, Sun at 2 pm. $60–$110.

Updated 10:17 pm, July 9, 2018
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