Artwork about religion is never neutral. There is always some message that the artist feels the need to communicate with his or her audience. This is not a bad thing: some of the greatest artwork ever created was prompted by the desire to communicate intense feelings of spirituality. Even outside the category of explicitly religious works, art has been used to express and explain philosophies from atheism to multi-culturalism. “Skinwalking,” the senior thesis of writer and director Cecelia A. Raker ’11, places itself within the discussion of art and religion not as a vehicle for expressing religious sentiment, but as a way of exploring the similarities between Judaism and Christianity. It’s an intriguing concept, but the play gets bogged down in needless obscurity. In the end, the work’s central themes of love, faith, and religion are only partially addressed.
“Skinwalking” centers on Mari (Xanthia A. Tucker ’13), a young lawyer who comes back to her rural hometown after her grandmother’s death to reoccupy the family house. As she rejoins the community, her rational atheism is shaken to the core by encounters with people who may or may not be analogs of biblical characters. These include José (Eduardo J. Perez-Torres ’12), who might be Joseph, and Blessed Mother Mary Full of Grace (Jasmine J. Rencher ’11), both of whom are first encountered in a Dunkin’ Donuts. Mari slowly begins to see that religion does not necessarily stand in contrast to rationalism, and her faith rekindles. Intermittently throughout the show a ‘skinwalker’ (Rebecca H. Kwan ’14), a physical representation of the characters’ doubts and fears, creeps across the stage in an attempt to take their skin—a diverting device that is never fully explained.
Overall, the acting in “Skinwalking” was solid, but it was hard for many of the characters to shine given the roles that they were playing. Both Rencher and Perez-Torres played their parts admirably, but were unable to explore their respective characters fully because the script doesn’t let them develop. They remain in stasis throughout the entire show. This same problem affects Ana (Sara S. Lytle ’13), the ghost of Mari’s mother. Towards the beginning of the first act she acts out, for the most part silently, the story of her love affair, drug addiction, and eventual suicide. However, this scene comes not only before we have been given an opportunity to sympathize with the character, but also before we can even place her within the overall framework of the play. What could have been a heartbreaking scene ends up looking like it was included purely for its shock value.
The suicide scene was very well-executed and the use of physicality rather than dialogue to move the plot forward was refreshing. Throughout the play, the director incorporated physical theater into the action on stage. By far the best example of this, and the best performance in the show, was by Kwan as the skinwalker. She used the grace and physical control of a dancer to create a creature that was scary, animalistic, and oddly compelling. She immediately grabbed the audience’s attention every time she went on stage.
The most fundamental problem with the play, though, was its unnecessary theatrical pretension. There is no apparent need for half-English, half-Spanish conversations, or for the language to abruptly switch to Shakespearean English when modern English is just as beautiful. Most frustrating of all, Raker is clearly a very talented writer. The best scenes in the play by far were the ones where two characters are simply having a conversation because the writing was clear and the characters could develop. During large sections of the play this quality of writing was buried underneath overwrought literary devices.
Thus “Skinwalking” is the disappointing end result of a very good original idea. The themes of personal love and loss used to describe and explain the relationship between humanity and God is fascinating. However, it is impossible to appreciate these central themes when they are obscured by superfluous affectations.
—Staff writer Noah S. Guiney can be reached at email@example.com.