'Etched in Skin': Meandering tale of a hallucinator

A scene from "Etched in Skin" with (from left) Aria Jones, Ian Bedford, and Phyllis Johnson. Johnson plays Jules, a woman who harbors a dark, secret past and receives hallucinatory visitations from Jónsi, lead singer of the Icelandic indie band Sigur Rós.
A scene from "Etched in Skin" with (from left) Aria Jones, Ian Bedford, and Phyllis Johnson. Johnson plays Jules, a woman who harbors a dark, secret past and receives hallucinatory visitations from Jónsi, lead singer of the Icelandic indie band Sigur Rós.
Posted: June 08, 2012

There are so many truly fascinating ideas floating around InterAct Theatre's world premiere of Kara Lee Corthron's drama Etched in Skin on a Sunlit Night, it's a wonder she managed to cram them all into the same play.

Then again, there's a big difference between cramming and finessing. For starters, Jules (Phyllis Johnson), an African American painter living in Iceland, married to Ólafur (Ian Bedford), an investment banker and native, harbors a dark, secret past. She also receives hallucinatory visitations from Jónsi (Jered McLenigan), lead singer of the ethereal Icelandic indie band Sigur Rós, who appears to her as an oblique, androgynous epigram-spouting spirit guide.

Surely more people have hallucinated to Björk, and it requires some esoteric knowledge on the part of audience members to consider that Jónsi's penchant for using "Hopelandic" lyrics - a blend of Icelandic and nonsense sounds - allows Jules to imprint her own confused thoughts on him (sample Jónsi dialogue: "Present living abstains from abstractions of which your past leanings have diminished to.").

But OK. Under the right circumstances, this combination of factors might make for an exciting evening of theater, one with a sharp wit about its own sense of self-importance (I mean, come on, Jónsi?). But Corthron keeps adding issues until far too many many threads compete for her attention, and her script quickly becomes as unraveled as its central character.

Unable to return to the United States, Jules watches Barack Obama's rise on television as Iceland's economy collapses. She's a self-mutilator, receives a visitor even more mysterious than Jónsi, struggles with her identity as a black woman, frets about her biracial daughter's identity and Ólafur's racial insensitivity. And Ólafur? He has a whole other thing going on. There's just not enough room in this review to get into it.

Despite Robert Kaplowitz's dynamic sound design (Sigur Rós sounds great looped on quality equipment) and Tim Brown's efforts to frame the action with large-screen projections featuring Jules' artwork, the aurora borealis, or audio-frequency modulations, director Whit MacLaughlin colludes with Corthron to emphasize the script's ponderousness. And yet, he fills this cast with such strong performers and characterizations; it's frustrating to watch Corthron lead them all in one direction, only to dart away and chase a different thread.

Johnson brings flesh and blood to a repository of plot twists. McLenigan's sylphlike Jónsi, clad in white with a feather in his hair, deserves both better lines and a better explanation for his presence. Bedford's genial Ólafur reveals a hidden caldera of volcanic fury, but too suddenly, and at the expense of an entire subplot about racial politics.

Jónsi tells Jules, "Break out of this masturbatorium and put your hands to work." For the sake of her characters, Corthron should do the same.


Etched in Skin on a Sunlit Night

Through June 24 at InterAct Theatre Company, Adrienne Theatre, 2030 Sansom St. Tickets: $28 to $35. Information: 215-568-8079 or www.interacttheatre.org.

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