Everything Except Shakespeare

Does Thornton Wilder's windy, reality-bending play belong at a festival devoted to the Bard?

Shakespeare festivals don't always do Shakespeare; maybe they never have. Folded in with summer Tempests and post-structuralist Othellos you find an odd Molière or a silly musical (Enter the Guardsman at Ashland! I mean, come on) that some director finds especially reminiscent of the Bard. Last year the California Shakespeare Festival followed Hamlet with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead and saved itself the trouble of tearing down a set.

This year, Cal Shakes has mounted Thornton Wilder's epic farce, The Skin of Our Teeth, which mentions Shakespeare exactly three times. Mrs. Antrobus misquotes him; the housemaid Sabina remarks, “Ugh. Shakespeare”; and in Act 1, famously, Mr. Antrobus telegrams advice to his family on how to keep warm as the ice age closes in: “Burn everything except Shakespeare.”

This is very droll in a festival, but it may not be worth a trip to Orinda. The rest of Wilder's play deals with a primordial New Jersey family that rises to the White House after 5,000 years and keeps a dinosaur and a woolly mammoth for pets. “The Antrobus family is several specific families,” wrote Travis Bogard in 1962 in a ponderous essay on Wilder's sense of humor. “It is the family unit of the cave-dwellers; it is Adam, Eve, and Lilith; it is the family of Noah; it is the family of the average present-day suburban commuter. … All images are blended in a composition of universal significance.”

Hmmm. When Wilder mixed the ice age, the Bible, World War II, and a suburban American family in a blender, he got a funny cocktail that widened the possibilities of American theater, but I'm not sure he wrote a great and enduring Last Word on the family. The Antrobuses play out their story on television; they're like Pirandello's stock family in Six Characters in Search of an Author, a group of neurotic people who would be rich material for melodrama if someone backstage would quit interrupting the scenes. These interruptions, rather than the story or the characters, are the point; in fact, the characters matter so little in Skin that their melodrama — involving a Cain-like son and a housekeeper who seduces Mr. A — is hard to keep warm for three hours.

Skin premiered in 1942. Wilder wanted to whack the bourgeois complacency of American theater by introducing elements from Pirandello and Brecht; audiences and critics, as if on cue, bickered until the play was a huge success. Even now it seems ahead of its time. The cartoon vision of a suburban family in the first act is shorthand for “the '50s” — or at least what those who weren't around to see them believe they were like. Wilder's sarcasm about the suburbs has won, in other words. In the second act Mrs. Antrobus warns a wild crowd on the Atlantic City boardwalk against the dangers of conformism: “We're not what books and plays say we are. We're not in movies and we're not on television. We are just ourselves.”

He may have been ahead of his time, but Wilder was also banal.

The show has plenty of strong performances, by Charles Dean as the Stage Manager, Sharon Lockwood as the Fortune Teller, Paul Vincent O'Connor as Mr. Antrobus, and Kathleen McNenny as the wisecracking, Lucille Ball-ish housekeeper Sabina. Emily Ackerman also gives a beautifully airheaded speech as Ivy, a girl who believes she understands something in the TV-show-within-a-play. (Why don't big stages give Ackerman more leading roles?) Some of Skin is a lot of fun. And there is an affinity here with Shakespeare that excuses mounting it for a festival. Wilder plays with levels of reality and illusion — “Lilith, the eternal temptress, is a maid named Sabina, who is played by an actress named Miss Fairweather,” Travis Bogard wrote — that may remind you of Shakespeare's gender games. “Rosalind: a boy, pretending to be a girl, pretending to be a boy, pretending to be a girl,” etc.

But it ain't Shakespeare. The good William never went in for drawing universals from windy generalities; he knew how to be specific. Wilder's attempt to encompass all of human history in one goofy play has now, predictably, dated. The Skin of Our Teeth is everything except Shakespeare, to its detriment.

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