Category Archives: Lincoln Center Theater

‘The Skin of Our Teeth,’ a Zany Exploration of the Fate of Humanity at Lincoln Center

Gabby Beans in The Skin of Our Teeth (Julieta Cervantes)

Thorton Wilder’s Pulitizer Prize winning The Skin of Our Teeth currently in revival at Lincoln Center’s Viviane Beaumont, presents the fate of the human race in three segments when the human family represented by the Antrobuses (Greek for man or human) faces extinction. The first debacle is the ice age; the second is the great deluge; the third is a seven years war. The play leaves off in uncertainty for surely humanity will continue to face threats of extermination and will continue to shake these off, repair itself and scientifically progress to greater heights and lower depths in its struggle to survive as a species. Though Wilder leaves this conclusion uncertain through the character of Sabina (Gabby Beans), the very fact that the characters make it as far as they do is a witness to human resilience and tenacity.

(L to R): Julian Robertson, Roslyn Ruff, Paige Gilbert in The Skin of Our Teeth, ( Julieta Cervantes)

The production, one of spectacle and moment, whimsy and humor is acutely directed by Lileana Blain-Cruz for maximum effect. It succeeds in various instances, to be poignant and profound as the Antrobus family (James Vincent Meredith-Dad, Roslyn Ruff-Mom, Julian Robertson-Henry, Paige Gilbert -Gladys) and their maid Sabina (Gabby Beans), one of the narrators who breaks the fourth wall to address the audience, claw their way through history to survive. These “every men” and “every women” archetypes experience representative cataclysms, all the while confronting the questions about the human race and their place in history until the end of time.

Though Wilder references Bible figures like Cain, suggests Adam, Eve and Lilith (Lily Sabina) and the disasters that have foundations in tribal religious mythology (the great flood myth is recorded in most indigenous cultures), other cataclysms are scientifically and historically referenced (the ice age, dinosaur extinction, seven year’s war between England and France). Wilder is intentionally out of chronological order, suggestive, melding various historical/cultural documents of literature and religion with scientific discovery. Throughout, the vital thread is humanity’s survival.

(L to R): Roslyn Ruff, Julian Robertson, James Vincent Meredith, Paige Gilbert in The Skin of Our Teeth (Julieta Cervantes)

The questions the characters raise which float throughout each act are philosophical and moral. For example is the human race worth saving from the struggles, trials and horrors which will continue to threaten both people and their environment? Should humanity just throw in the towel, lay down and refuse to repair itself or evolve technologically, artistically, scientifically? Given the rapacity and murderous ruthlessness of son Henry (aka the Biblical Cain, the spirit of murder in humanity), will the human race just exterminate itself with weapons of its own making? Or as humanity’s mother, Mrs. Antrobus suggests, will the family unit sustain the human species, enabling it to succeed in each progressive and evolving era?

Given the latest foray into extinction by Vladimir Putin as he attempts to obliterate Ukraine into the dust bin of history, bully democratic countries to heel to his genocide, and bribe apologist lackeys in the extreme global radical right, including the QAnon Republican Party, Wilder’s overriding questions are current. This is especially so in the last segment when Mrs. Antrobus and daughter Gladys emerge from the basement where they’ve been sheltering for a seven years war to reunite with Sabina (Gabby Beans) and welcome the new peace. However, they consider how they will rebuild as they view the burned wreckage of their bombed out home.

The Company of The Skin of Our Teeth (Julieta Cervantes)

As the curtain of the last act rises on the devastation, one can’t help think of Ukrainian towns (the Russian soldiers have since left), and Mariupol, where Ukrainian families and soldiers shelter in basements and in a steel factory, as they suffer Putin’ inhumane starvation, while bombs blast above, uselessly pulverizing dust. The irony is so beyond the pale; Putin bombs dust in helpless fury while every minute the heroism, bravery and resilience of Ukraine’s “Antrobus” spirit thrusts into the heavens forever memorializing that Ukraine will never capitulate to the likes of Putin. It is a forever humiliation of Russia for allowing such a cretin serial killer to usurp power, genocide women and children and bomb dust because the Ukrainians embody the slogan, “live free or die,” and refuse to bow to one man rule and an abdication of their human rights to Putin.

Electing to die honorable Roman deaths, rather than submit to Putin’s vengeful, psychotic temper tantrums, they shame those officials who pretend to uphold democracy but, like Putin, vitiate human rights with lies. Uncannily, what’s happening in Mariupol dovetails with Wilder’s prescient theme, that the human race will never capitulate to fires, floods, and its own murderous instincts.

Though Sabina grouses that she’s sick and tired of being sick and tired as she begins the first lines at the top of the play again, the wheel of irrevocable change and life goes around once more with new things for humanity to learn in a new way that is never a repetition of the past. However, Sabina doesn’t see that human history is a spiral and not a circle. She is blind to the human experiment, which Wilder suggests we must understand beyond her limited vision.

Priscilla Lopez in The Skin of Our Teeth (Julieta Cervantes)

Indeed, no human being desires going into survival mode. But cataclysm squeezes out benefit from humanity’s collective soul during great trials. Wilder suggests it is worth the price. Human tenacity and hope propel the human race to make it to the next day evolving its wisdom, strength and efficacy. Wilder suggests, this is confirmed again and again and again with each debacle, each disaster, each cataclysm, each deranged maniac that would make war on his brothers and himself.

Some scenes in this enlightened production are particularly adorable. The representative sentient beings of the ice age, the dinosaur and mammoth are the most lovable pets thanks to the brilliant puppeteers (Jeremy Gallardo, Beau Thom, Alphonso Walker Jr., Sarin Monae West).

The Company of The Skin of Our Teeth (Julieta Cervantes)

Unfortunately, Antrobus (James Vincent Meredith) tells the dinosaur and mammoth to leave the warmth of their Jersey home so he has room to take in refugees like prophet Moses, the ancient Greek poet Homer and the three Muses: Melete, “Practice,” Mneme, “Memory” and Aoide, “Song,” who would otherwise freeze to death. The dinosaur’s and mammoth’s expulsion is heartbreaking; the ice age destroys their kind. However, Wilder ties their extinction to necessity. Humanity gave up some unique, particular species and from that arose incalculable value. In this instance the preservation includes the foundation of human laws of civilization, timeless poetry and the spirits who inspire art to soothe the collective human soul and inspire its hope and creativity.

The sounds of the ice shelf moving, the projection of the towers of ice and the smashing of the home are particularly compelling, as the Antrobus family and their maid and sometime object of Mr. Antrobus’ affections escape, “by the skin of their teeth.” Likewise the sounding of the alarm of the impending storming deluge is scarily effected with a huge crane-like device.

(L to R): Roslyn Ruff, Julian Robertson, Paige Gilbert, James Vincent Meredith in The Skin of Our Teeth (Julieta Cervantes)

Wilder’s zany, human account has the same setting of bucolic New Jersey throughout. In Act II it’s still New Jersey, but it’s the wild equivalent of sin city in Atlantic City and the boardwalk that has a carnival atmosphere with a lovely gypsy fortune teller (Priscilla Lopez) who warns Antrobus that she can tell him his future, but his past is lost and incomprehensible. It is an interesting notion because one then thinks of the adjuration, “those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it.” However, this doesn’t quite follow for the Antrobus family who are forward moving in progress.

The Fortune Teller predicts the great deluge. Terrifying warning sounds rendered by a huge mechanism register the wind velocity and impending storm ferocity. Warnings are all ignored by the tourists and those who enjoy the fun, dancing, drugging and alluring lights of the Atlantic City boardwalk. As doom approaches, they party. Of course the Antrobus family flees to a boat after pursuing their natures (Henry has killed someone else). Sabina follows them, a veritable member of the family in her seductions of Antrobus manifested in Act II, hinted at in Act I.

James Vincent Meredith, Roslyn Ruff in The Skin of Our Teeth (Julieta Cervantes)

A powerful scene in Act III occurs after the war is over and the Antrobuses convene at what’s left of their Jersey home. Henry confronts his father, for he is the enemy and Antrobus senior threatens to kill him. Of all the characters, the murderous Henry is the most useless. The daughter is the golden child as was the child they no longer speak of, the beautiful, gifted Abel who Henry resentfully killed. But in Act III, after Henry expresses his feelings of isolation, loneliness and desolation being insulted and demeaned by his father, there is a breakthrough and resolution which is heartening. The scene beautifully rendered by Julian Robertson who is in his element as the enraged and hurt son and James Vincent Meredith as the father, suggests hope and love are possible through communication.

Director Lileana-Blain Cruz shepherds her fine, spot-on cast with aplomb to performances that never appear off focus or muted for Wilder’s unique characterizations.

The fun of this production also is in the set design, aptly configured by Adam Rigg, effervescent and vibrant in the first two acts, symbolic and moving in Act III. The colorful costumes by Montana Levi reveal the time periods Act I suburban housewife and family and children happy-go-lucky flowery, and the appropriate fur coat and appropriate wear for Homer, Moses and the others. Act II the 1920s flapper style and for the men the orange pin stripes typically emotive for officials of the Convention for Mammals. The lovely Fortune Teller outfit is glamorous, as she is like a Hollywood celebrity and Sabina is the seductress in shimmering red. Act IIIs the outfits and back to the housewife/mother and maid look similiar to Act I are all exacting.

With Blanco, Yi Zhao’s accompanying lighting, Palmer Hefferan’s sound design and the integrated projections by Hannah Wasileski, the artistic technical team provides the canvas which sets off the events and the performances making them more striking. Even more fun are the expert puppeteers who made me fall in love with the animals and shed a tear at their demise. I am calling out these individuals again, BRAVO to Jeremy Gallardo, Beau Thom, Alphonso Walker Jr., Sarin Monae West.

I’ve said enough. Go see it. For tickets and times go to their website: https://www.lct.org/shows/skin-our-teeth/

‘Intimate Apparel A New Opera,’ a Must-See at Lincoln Center Theater

Kearstin Piper Brown, Naomi Louisa O’Connell in Intimate Apparel A New Opera, Music by Ricky Ian Gordon, Libretto by Lynn Nottage (T. Charles Erickson)

Lynn Nottage’s superb play Intimate Apparel won an Outer Critic’s Circle Award and New York Drama Critic’s Circle Award. It is a play about women circa the turn of the century, the parallels and disparities between race and class, black and white, wealthy and struggling. For the women, gender is the equalizer. This is especially so in Intimate Apparel A New Opera presented at Lincoln Center’s Mitzi E. Newhouse until the 6th of March. As such this new work is dramatic, taut with undercurrents and themes propelled by Ricky Ian Gordon’s thrilling music and Nottage’s indelible libretto.

Nottage has streamlined her poetic work for Gordon whose music is stylized and hybrid, born out of Nottage’s characterizations to elucidate profound themes that resonate with the audience. Gordon and Nottage are a pairing made in heaven. The production, well thought out by director Bartlett Sher, is all that one might want in raw emotional grace, generated by Gordon’s luscious notes, conveyed by the beautiful, heartfelt voices of the leads and their chorus counterparts.

Sher’s staging features stylized economy and nuance, unencumbered by the extraneous to allow the themes and characterizations to strike with impact. The action takes place on Michael Yeargan’s revolving turntable stage as the world of these characters is circular. The props are efficiently rolled out and back, highly specific to the story, inconsequential once their purpose has been fulfilled and they dissipate into memory. All reflects an impermanence and hint of symbolic meaning, the tip of the iceberg, like the photographs that appear at the end of each act that Nottage has moved from play to libretto. It is a smashing touch that adheres thematically when we see the floor to ceiling size pictures of the characters “unidentified,” though we have been privileged to have their lives unfold during the opera.

The characters, like us, are subject to their time and place and though they appear to move forward, they remain static, even going backward psychically (George Armstrong, Mayme, Mrs. Van Buran). Forward movement and progress is an illusion, especially for unmarried Negro seamstress, Esther (Kearstin Piper Brown). Nottage effectively draws her arc of development so that Esther is fated to return back to the same setting by the opera’s conclusion. It is in the boarding house of Mrs. Dickson (Adrienne Danrich) when we first meet the unhappy Esther.

Kearstin Piper Brown in Intimate Apparel A New Opera, Music by Ricky Ian Gordon, Libretto by Lynn Nottage (T. Charles Erickson)

Nottage’s message is clear. Throughout Esther has been through an emotional cataclysm as many black women experienced at the time, marching without notice through history, bearing up against what the society dealt out. Yet, Esther comes through it. And though she ends up in the same place, she is strengthened, stoic, heroic, independent and dignified. Indeed, Esther lands on her feet, perhaps wearily, but she will continue. And it is this delineation of character that Nottage, Sher and Gordon understand in their bones, so that they translate her characterization magnificently into this heartfelt operatic presentation.

From the outset we recognize that Esther is unlike the other women in the boarding house where Corinna Mae’s wedding ceremony is being held. Esther supports herself and is alone, working continually to make her way, not distracted by friends or entertainments which she cannot afford. Thus, she isn’t tempted by the ragtime music that we hear “downstairs.” Throughout, she avoids Mrs. Dickson’s encouragement to meet with one man or another to settle down. Ironically, when she should take Mrs. Dickson’s advice, she doesn’t and pays the price for it. .

As the opera opens Esther, annoyed and jealous at Corinna Mae’s marriage admits to Mrs. Dickson she doesn’t feel she will be loved. Nottage’s libretto melds with Gordon’s party ragtime as it flows into refrains, “I hate her laughter,” “I hate her happiness.” The libretto throughout is lyrical and grounded in emotional realism as Gordon’s recitative rises to meet the character’s desires and feelings. In this case, Esther yearns to be loved, but feels it is hopeless. But by the end of the scene, she receives a letter given to her from Mrs. Dickson. Perhaps, it will satisfy her longings.

Kearstin Piper Brown, Justin Austin in Intimate Apparel A New Opera, Music by Ricky Ian Gordon, Libretto by Lynn Nottage (Julieta Cervantes)

The letter is from laborer George Armstrong (Jorell Williams on Sunday matinee when I saw it). From Barbados, working on the Panama Canal, George Armstrong is an acquaintance friend of someone she knows in her church. The letter becomes the driving force of the action in the opera as it is in Nottage’s titular play. Esther, who can’t read or write, solicits help from two of her clients who are literate. Both women, opposite sides of the same coin, make their living from men, unlike Esther. One is the white elite society woman, the wealthy Mrs. Van Buren (Naomi Louisa O’Connell), whose husband supports her in style but who is disassociated from his wife emotionally, psychically and physically. The other is Mayme (Tesia Kwarteng on Sunday matinee when I saw it), who sells her sexual favors and takes beatings from the men who pay her for her services, one of which is to abuse her. She, too, is removed from the men to whom she plies her trade in an incredible irony of intimacy.

As Esther sews the same beautifully made “intimate apparel” (calling forth what true intimacy might mean) so they can attract the males in their lives, both help her write the letters to George. Mrs. Van Buren supplies the technical expertise and Mayme supplies the romantic allurements and sugar. During the process Esther becomes their confidante and she becomes theirs. The relationships are enlightening and Nottage reveals the parallels among the women who the men dominate and abuse emotionally, psychically and physically. Thus, there is no difference between Mrs. Van Buren or Mayme; though the disparities in economic and financial well-being and respect based on race and class are galaxies apart.

Both ply their sexual trade for their keep, and though there is the appearance of a vast difference, certainly prompted by women elitists, the women, who are representative of their classes are oppressed. Esther is less so because of her independence and dominant attitude not to embrace the values that keep women enslaved to men. However, Esther, too falls from that grace, and the opera is an affirmation that she must learn that what she has achieved is indomitable and superior to the other women at this time and place.

Krysty Swann and the company of Intimate Apparel A New Opera, Music by Ricky Ian Gordon, Libretto by Lynn Nottage (T. Charles Erickson)

Ironically, Mrs. Van Buren asks Esther if she is a suffragette when she makes a remark that sounds like women’s empowerment. Esther, in spite of herself, encourages Mrs. Van Buren not to “let him do you that way.” For her part Mrs. Van Buren is stuck in the psyche of her “feminine” class stature. She must fit into the stereotypical cut-outs of elite women. She will be the last to realize the vitality of empowering gender identity and women’s rights. She is her husband’s chattel, dependent on him for support, choosing not to work or seek out a skill which is beneath her. Mayme, like Mrs. Van Buren, is oppressed by the men who pay her. Without a skill to support themselves, Mayme and Mrs. Van Buren are sisters born of the same mother of servitude, soul demeaned without independence.

Esther’s scenes with Mrs. Van Buren and Mayme resonate powerfully. During these scenes especially we understand how the women lure Esther (though she has asked for it, stirred by Mrs. Dickson’s values of a woman’s world defined by a man who keeps them) to “fall in love” with George who is a figment of all their imaginations. This is rendered beautifully in the aria when Mayme and Esther sing about the discovered George who has been with both women. It is then Esther tells Mayme not to let him in the door (symbolizing the door of her heart). “Let him go. He’s an unanswered letter, a feather on the wind, you’ll be chasing him forever.”

To Mrs. Van Buren Esther represents a freedom and openness she craves in her life. However, the three women sing “I fear I love someone,” a melodic, symbolic creation. For Esther her forbidden love is Mr. Marks (Arnold Livingston Geis) the Orthodox fabric seller on Orchard Street with whom she has formed a spiritual attachment. For Mrs. Van Buren it is the allure of the forbidden (spoiler alert) Esther who makes her feel accepted and loved for herself. For Mayme it is George’s razzle dazzle of flashing his money (actually Esther’s money) so they can enjoy themselves. His manipulations have convinced her he is her “Songbird,” though he is married to Esther.

The love Esther, Mrs. Van Buren and Mayme sing of cannot be purchased; it remains outside of their reach. They are confined by folkways and unable to cross those lines in 1905. Love remains that which is a financial and business arrangement pragmatically as Mrs. Dickson suggests happened in her life, or it is a fantasy that little girls are taught to dream of to anticipate marriage, which in reality is an oppression they cannot easily escape after marriage.

Kearstin Piper Brown, Arnold Livingston Geis in Intimate Apparel A New Opera, Music by Ricky Ian Gordon, Libretto by Lynn Nottage ((Julieta Cervantes)

Esther’s relationship with Mr. Marks is vibrantly drawn by Nottage’s libretto and beautifully brought to life by Brown and Geis as Esther and Mr. Marks. The fabrics Mr. Marks saves for her carry great meaning and sensuality. Their closeness is beyond professional as their glances and smiles reveal they yearn for each other. Just a casual touch is significant. After Esther is married she tells Mr. Marks she can’t see him anymore and her answer when he asks, “Why not?” carries the weight of the world, “I think you know why.”

However, it is their last meeting when Esther gives him the smoking jacket that she gave to George, that George gave to Mayme and that Esther took back from Mayme and gives to Mr Marks, that we know the value of “intimate apparel,” and how the symbol has final closure. Intimacy isn’t necessarily in a physical acquaintance, it is soulful, spiritual. Esther, who made the jacket on his recommendation tells him, “It was made for you.” His wearing it will have symbolic meaning for him and for her of a love that was never consummated, but a transcendent love that prospers, regardless of nullifying strictures, prejudices and folkways. What a poignant, memorable satisfying moment, superlatively performed by Brown and Geis.

The finely wrought and beautifully designed costumes by Catherine Zuber are characters unto themselves, measuring out the symbolism, conflicts and themes of class, gender and relationships. From lighting (Jennifer Tipton), to sound (Marc Salzberg) to projections (59 Productions) the technical effects are right on, enhancing this exceptional production. The suspension of the pianos on platforms above the stage is enlightened, as the music and musicians are integral to the action, driving it, supporting it, always visible. Kudos to Steven Osgood’s music direction and Dianne McIntyre’s choreography.

Intimate Apparel closes on March 6th unless it is extended which it should be. Though the audience was packed, more individuals need to see this production which hits it out of the ballpark. For tickets and times go to their website https://www.lct.org/shows/intimate-apparel/

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