Sunday, Nov. 16, 2008

The face of Mike Jacobs on the Cieling

By Russ Bickerstaff
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When the lights dimmed to black, there was the standard “turn off you cell phones” announcement over the sound system. What happened next was a bit of a surprise. A video projection blared across the ceiling of the auditorium. As I recall there was an opening cue from the local NBC affiliate’s TV news show and there, larger than life was the familiar face of local TV news anchor Mike Jacobs. The projection covered a good portion of the ceiling of a rather large local auditorium, making Jacobs’ face look oddly deific. Seemingly oblivious to his own overwhelming immensity, Jacobs casually delivered the opening introduction for the latest production of Thornton Wilder’s The Skin of Our Teeth. It was formatted as a fully-produced local TV news segment complete with music cues and over the shoulder graphics, only Jacobs was talking in his usual local TV news anchor tones about the coming ice age. It was one of the more surreal experiences I’ve had in the theatre this season. This was the last thing that I would’ve expected as the opening of a high school play.

The cleverly produced intros were the product of the TV news station, which was approached by director Tyne Turner. She’d emailed a number of local TV stations. Channel 4 was the only one to get back to her. Given the difficulties Milwaukee Public Schools have been having lately, it’s not difficult to understand why the local NBC affiliate would volunteer time, resources and a distinctive face to a Milwaukee High School of the Arts theatrical production. In fact, the Jacobs video segments opened 2 of the production’s three acts, lending a professional feel to a rather edgy choice for a public school theatrical production. First staged in 1942, Wilder’s The Skin of Our Teeth is a tribute to those moments in history when the human race nearly became extinct. The human race is represented here by the typical nuclear family: the Antrobuses from Glendale. The three-act play is something of a three course meal of human disaster. In consciously, comically anachronistic form, the Antrobuses deal with (in order) an ice age, a sudden flood and a world war. The original play won Wilder a Pulitzer Prize for Drama in the ‘40’s, but has rarely been heard of since as it is rarely produced.

The production itself suffers from the usual sorts of difficulties that plague a high school production. What makes this particular show interesting is the fact that, rather than seeing high school kids struggle through the work of Shakespeare or Neil Simon or some awful Broadway musical that ceased to be interesting decades ago, these are high school students struggling through a play that has a substantial amount of intellectual meat to it. The Skin of Our Teeth is one that I’ve waned to see ever since I’d read the script as a teenager. Seeing high school students rumble and speed though bits of it awkwardly make those rare flashes of brilliant performance feel so overwhelmingly triumphant. There are some really promising performances here. Provocative, intelligent theatre has been through a lot over the centuries. There have been a few near-extinctions. MHSA’s production of The Skin of Our Teeth makes the long-range survival of an intelligent stage seem that much more possible.

Sadly, there were only three performancs of th show scheduled. The final matinee performance of the MHSA’s production of The Skin of Our Teeth happens today at 2pm.

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