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Starting Over

Rhodes' Skin: timely comedy of biblical proportions.

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Quick, somebody tell Sarah Palin! The McCoy Theatre at Rhodes College is about to present evidence that Adam and Eve used to hang out with dinosaurs and woolly mammoths. In New Jersey. During the Ice Age. In the 1940s. Or at least a play that shows Adam and Eve hanging out with dinosaurs and mammoths. Same thing.

"I have that unsettling feeling you get before a show opens, when you like what you're seeing and hope that everything hasn't been completely misguided," says The Skin of Our Teeth director Pamela Poletti, stressing over her last week of rehearsal for Thornton Wilder's Pulitzer Prize-winning screwball comedy about evil, war, catastrophe, more war, and the miraculous invention of the apron. And the alphabet.

"It's so big," Poletti says, and you can hear her brain aching a bit when she says it. "It's a big cast, and it's got big ideas, with big tech requirements. Honestly, it might as well be a musical."

Wilder's script, which bears a striking resemblance to James Joyce's impenetrable masterpiece Finnegans Wake, reinvents the story of Adam, Eve, Cain, and Gladys, an occasionally happy family that seems to live in a perpetual state of inventing, destroying, and rebuilding the entire world.

"The students chose to do The Skin of Our Teeth last year, because they thought it would be relevant right after this year's presidential election," Poletti says, and it's hard to argue the prescience of a play that takes its name from a complaint that humanity only made it through the last Great Depression "by the skin of our teeth."

Wilder's Capra-esque comedy is set on an Earth where minutes and centuries are interchangeable. The great Ice Age, the great flood of Moses, and various warring hoards ravage the stage, while Mr. and Mr. George Antrobus (Adam and Eve) figure out a way for their family to get along in the world.

"We have a wonderful black-and-white projection of a woman — a very vintage woman from the 1950s in her vintage pearls talking on a vintage phone to Mayor A C Wharton, who is also talking on a vintage phone," Poletti says, explaining how she plans to take things one step further and bring Wilder's New Jersey Ice Age a little closer to Memphis in the 21st century. "As we move through the acts, you start to see costumes from the 1960s and a touch of the 1970s in a lapel here and there."

The McCoy production takes more temporal liberties in its depiction of Wilder's war.

"We didn't want to focus on a single war," Poletti says. "I really wanted us to think about all of the wars that we're still hung up on or still fighting in some way," she explains, describing costumes from the war in Iraq, WWII, and the American Civil War.

"Usually when I'm doing my research, I focus on previous productions. This time, I went back and re-read the Book of Genesis. Because the story ... it's so big. And so crazy. And biblical and allegorical. It reminds me of a great gospel show but with this dark side that's all about man as a crazy animal.

"Every scene ends with disaster," she continues. "George Antrobus' will to start over is sorely tried. His soul is tested, especially when he realizes that there will always be evil in the world no matter what he invents. But it's also a period comedy, and while the wind is howling, you have to make sure that people are laughing. That's a challenge."

Poletti wishes she could figure out a way to slip back to the 1940s for a peek at how audiences responded to Wilder's script. In its original incarnation, with a caustic and seductive Tallulah Bankhead in the role of Sabina, it was wildly unconventional.

"Some of the things he was doing that were still new then have become ... well ... conventional," Poletti says. "I'm not sure if some of it can be surprising anymore," she adds somewhat regretfully.

"I like to think of this play as Frank Capra meets Samuel Beckett, and I'm always floored when I realize that The Skin of Our Teeth was written and performed before Waiting for Godot. It's the most modern, progressive period comedy, and I'm humbled by it. I want everybody to love it as much as I do."

At Rhodes College's McCoy Theatre through November 23rd

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