Skinwalking: Turning Sand into Glass

April 7, 2011

Last weekend, “Skinwalking” compelled and disturbed audiences over its five performances in the Loeb Ex.  The four-act play is the thesis of senior Cecelia Raker ’11, who set out to explore the differences between Judaism and Christianity, and more broadly, belief and skepticism.

Raker has clearly done her research—several pages of eloquent program notes assure the audience of this.  When the play begins, however, these ideas are shrouded in an abstract plot, which refuses to grant its audience a specific time or place of occurrence. Xanthia Tucker ’13 plays the sympathetic heroine Mari, who arrives in a town surrounded by desert, which appears to be both her Podunk hometown and a home to Biblical characters.  All the characters fear the “skinwalker,” a creature threatening to take their skin, and Tucker’s transformation after being attacked by the beast is effective.

In strange contrast to this general obscurity of plot, the script is often blunt in its allusions to Old and New Testament stories, which are often referenced in pithy throw-away lines.  However, neither “Jesus” nor “Moses” is ever mentioned—a choice so deliberate that over time, the avoidance of direct reference grows tiresome.  These two names, central to the play’s meaning, are always replaced with “my son,” “my brother,” or even “some guy,” depending on the speaker, and that choice often has a cheapening effect.

The production is a great model of how the Ex can be used to its full potential.  Raker’s set design allows the black box to accommodate a Dunkin Donuts, a two-story home, a bridge, and a desert without a single set change.  The scenes transitioned fluidly, with the additional help of tasteful lighting by Steven Jaret.

Perhaps the play’s most memorable feature is its extended sequences of mime and stage combat.  Sara Lytle ’13, with the help of Adrian Arteaga ’14, presents a gripping and unsettling movement piece depicting the conception and birth of her daughter, and ultimately her own suicide.  Lytle’s ghostly portrayal of Ana haunts the play, as she lurks around Eugene’s home, unseen to most characters.  No audience member is at ease as long as her quiet singing and watchful eyes loom.

Several other actors, too, gave strong performances that helped correct for the play’s weaknesses. Rebecca Kwan ’14 plays the wretched Skinwalker, and her physicality grounds the supernatural, fantastical premise of the play.  Her precise choices of body and voice, as well as her willingness to invade the audience’s space, makes the threat of the ominous Skinwalker real and believable. Eduardo Perez-Torres ’12 brings much-needed energy to the stage, even if audience members are too on edge to laugh at his one-liners and ongoing give-and-take with his stuffed sheep.

The ultimate message and relevance of Raker’s play may have been lost in the obscurity of its plot.  Nevertheless, strong acting and direction allowed audiences of “Skinwalking” to invest in the play’s somewhat bizarre characters and be touched by their bleak wanderings in the wilderness.

The Harvard Art Review Theatre Board

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