Ice Age at Cal Shakes

The Skin of Our Teeth and The Merry Wives of Windsor

An actor friend still shudders when Thornton Wilder’s Skin of Our Teeth is mentioned. “I hate that play,” he says simply, remembering his turn as the violent, uncontrollable Henry. “It’s a hard play for actors.” And indeed, it can be a challenging play for audiences as well. When it was first performed in 1942, audiences and critics alike didn’t know what to make of it — from the deliberate anachronisms to the way Wilder repeatedly broke the fourth wall, it was like the “nice, bracing cold air” (actually an Ice Age) that paterfamilias George Antrobus sends his family’s pets (a dinosaur and a woolly mammoth) out into. While humorous, Skin also addresses serious issues of violence, faith, and the nature of civilization, while tossing a lot of biblical, classical, and literary references into the blender willy-nilly. In the hands of Cal Shakes director Richard Hamburger, Skin is sharp and goofy without sacrificing emotional intensity — Mrs. Antrobus’ second-act “what a woman is” speech, sincerely played by Lorri Holt, is a good example, as is Henry’s outpouring of existential rage in the third act.

If Skin is a hard play for actors, these cast members don’t let on, and appear to be enjoying themselves immensely — especially Kathleen McNenny as the seductive maid Sabina, Sharon Lockwood as the Fortune Teller, and Heidi Armbruster as daughter Gladys. While Holt’s Mrs. Antrobus is a model of dignity, these three women are hamming it up. As my companion said admiringly of longtime Mime Trouper Lockwood, “I could watch that woman in that role for two hours all by herself.” Which is not to knock the men — Paul Vincent O’Connor as Mr. Antrobus and T. Edward Webster as son Henry have excellent chemistry as the two forces they represent — order and chaos — struggle for dominance, and the consistently wonderful Luis Oropeza returns to light up some of the ensemble roles. Even the guy playing Dinosaur was really quite sweet, no small task when one is totally concealed in a rubber suit.

The design team has done a stellar job of bringing the play’s compressed universe to life: set, lighting, sound, and costumes are seamlessly integrated into a bright, larger-than-life whole. One of the inherent challenges of the Bruns space — the lack of a curtain — has cleverly been turned to the play’s advantage. In making the between-act set changes transparent, with stagehands in matching coveralls moving platforms and hanging lights, the sensation of unreality is heightened, the play-within-a-play made more evident.

The sets capture each act perfectly — the sitcom-y first act in bright yellow, the disco-era second act in glittery red, the war-torn third act stripped to a scaffolding and some burnt furniture. I hadn’t realized another advantage to staging Skin outdoors until I heard a woman in the audience say, “I can sure feel that iceberg coming!” — the first act ends in an ice age just as the Northern California evening gets colder.

What weaknesses there are in the production flow from the difficulty of working with a script that treats history like a tube of toothpaste and characters as both real people and archetypes. Wilder was trying to accomplish a lot with one play, and ended up writing almost two entirely different plays: one comprised of the first two acts, with the third act being the other. From the slapstick farce of the Ice Age and Deluge sections to the abstracted introspection of the postwar third act is a big jump, and a successful transition from hyperactivity (talking dinosaurs, sequin-coated go-go girls, and tsunamis) to (relatively) quiet contemplation (during the war Mr. Antrobus sustained himself by imagining the hours as philosophers) requires the audience’s full cooperation. Wilder also gets preachy in the third act, which makes the end of the play seems less focused and crystalline than the beginning, but it’s still interesting.

You can barely find a park this summer that doesn’t have some free theater action going on, and the San Francisco Shakespeare Festival’s contribution, The Merry Wives of Windsor, has to be among the fluffiest of the summer’s offerings. This production of Wives, distinguished from Shakespeare’s other works by its focus on working-class people, is amusing enough, if burdened with an overlong first act. It’s Shakespeare Lite: all the themes, very little of the angst, and nothing that might make you drop your wineglass and stain your blanket.

Shakespeare stalwart Ken Ruta returns as portly knight John Falstaff (a role he also played last year in Henry IV parts one and two), here less martial and more of a wuvable wascal. Rumor has it that Shakespeare tossed off Wives at the request of Queen Elizabeth, who wanted to see Falstaff in love, and the play is best when Falstaff and his conniving are at the fore. He’s not in love, per se, but scheming to seduce two married ladies (Elizabeth Carter and Kay Kostopoulos) and thereby get access to their husbands’ wealth. The ladies catch on, and decide to humiliate him in various ways while trumpeting their virtuousness. Less engaging (in the first act) is a garbled subplot involving some poaching and pocket-picking that comes to nothing, and the competition of several suitors for the hand of young Anne Page (Afi Ayanna Shepard-Staley). The latter would be more interesting if we cared about the lads in question (the clueless Slender, the blustering Frenchman Doctor Caius, and the highborn Fenton), but it’s a little hard to hear what’s going on, and at least in Slender’s case, hard to understand why he’s even bothering — his friends are putting him up to it, ostensibly because it would be a rich match, but all he cares about are rhymes and games.

Things improve a lot after intermission. The pace picks up, and so does the most vivid part of this production — the tension between Falstaff and Master Ford, husband to one of the merry wives. Broodingly jealous and distrustful of his wife, Master Ford has disguised himself and approached Falstaff with a proposition designed to test her fidelity. Next to Ken Ruta’s sunny, boastful Falstaff, the smoldering Robert Weinapple as Master Ford is a time bomb, potentially capable of anything. We truly fear for his wife if she should fail his test — and believe his passion for her when she does not. It’s a tricky role, seething darkly in the middle of such a lightweight comedy, but Weinapple pulls it off, and is well-matched both by the rumbly, rich-voiced Ruta and the lovely, giggling Elizabeth Carter, who glides about in period costume as if on wheels.

The climax of the play, where Falstaff is lured into the forest at midnight to be taunted by townspeople disguised as fairies (and the Anne Page subplot finally pays off, as the suitors get their comeuppance), is a lot of fun, and makes up in pacing and interest what the first act lacks.

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