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Etched in Skin on a Sunlit Night

by Lewis Whittington
Contributor
Monday Jun 11, 2012
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Akeem Davis and Phyllis Johnson in "Etched in Skin on a Sunlit Night"
Akeem Davis and Phyllis Johnson in "Etched in Skin on a Sunlit Night"  (Source:Seth Rozin)

InterAct Theatre Company’s season closer is "Etched in Skin on a Sunlit Night" by Kara Lee Corthron, a dizzying socio-political-domestic-existentialist drama. It premieres after its three-years-in-development commission and has gone through several reworked drafts.

The play revolves around Jules, an African-American abstract portrait artist in self-exile in Iceland where she falls in love and marries Olafur, an investment banker. He proposes to her in 2000 on an aurora plateau, stylishly rendered with screen projections, then the action flashes forward eight years on what appears to be the couples’ tranquil marriage as they raise biracial daughter Kina.

Jules may be an ex-patriot, but she is mesmerized at the prospect of an Obama presidency. In fact, Olafur accidentally spies her Jules licking Obama’s image on their flat screen. The couple bats around the implications of America’s first black president, but Jules is carrying on her own dialogue concerning the viability of his image and sincerity.

Meanwhile, she is not convinced that Olafur doesn’t harbor suppressed racist attitudes. She is incensed when he brings home a racist children’s book he had when he was a child. It is replete with stereotypical, negative images of blacks. Olafur views himself as post-racial and sees the book as a harmless bit of nostalgia.

Meanwhile, the financial meltdown hits Iceland and Olafur scrambles to survive and Jules is forced to start selling her paintings to make ends meet. She starts to lose her grip on reality and act out as she tries to repress her anger and reconcile her past.

Phyllis Johnson is completely invested in every moment as Jules; shame the power of her performance is sandbagged by plot devises. She is well paired with Ian Bedford as Olafur, and they achieve wonderful chemistry at key points with difficult material.

At her studio, Warton, a young black man who is somehow connected to her estranged parents, visits her and they begin what can only be called an S/M relationship. Later, at home, she’s so agitated that Kina stumbles on her frantically sleep-painting bloodied and mutilated black minstrels on the walls. Oh, and Jules envisions her artist muse, Jónsi, a spectral of the lead singer of the indie band Sigur Rósthere who drops by unannounced.

Corthron’s script is bristling with interesting characters and dialogue; she not only writes wonderfully natural humor, Jules’ descent into madness has a very real, visceral power. But, after a promising first act, Corthron hedges her bets, opting for plot convolutions and social commentary. The driving dramatic puzzle becomes too scattered and desperate.

Phyllis Johnson is completely invested in every moment as Jules; shame the power of her performance is sandbagged by plot devises. She is well paired with Ian Bedford as Olafur, and they achieve wonderful chemistry at key points with difficult material. Jered McLenigan’s Jónsi is fun momentarily, but gets cloying as he loiters without intent.

Akeem Davis does what he can with Warton, but as written, sketchy to the point of annoyance. Meanwhile, Aria Jones as Kina, the charming daughter who doesn’t go anywhere without Malibu Barbie and a sensible observation, just melts everything in sight whether she was speaking in English or Icelander -- what a fantastic, natural young actress she is.

The production has wonderful lighting (Maria Shaplin) and sound (Robert Kaplowitz) designs. Whit Maclaughlin directs with sharp and subtle hand, orchestrating a strong cast, but he has no solutions for the rhetorical bloat. A mixed bag with "Etched in Skin" an ambitious drama with intriguing lead roles, but going in too many directions at once.

Lewis Whittington writes about the performing arts and gay politics for several publications.

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