By Wesley James
The war in the middle east is a labyrinth for creativity – play after play inspired by or based on or adapted for this topic falls short for being unable to conquer the incredibly complex subject matter, for wallowing in itself, or for falling prey to overstating the obvious. Skin for Skin, then, is something of a breath of fresh air; its approach to this subject matter is ruthless, honest, and almost invasively bi-partisan. The play is appropriately dark, refreshingly human, deeply, deeply thought provoking.
Skin for Skin follows an Iraq born U.S. citizen and international businessman Mr. Ayyub (Steve Silver) abducted by the U.S. military when several of his trucks go missing. The sergeant (Tony St. Clair) in charge of his case brings on an anti-interrogation specialist (Shariba Rivers) and convinces her to reverse-engineer her techniques to find out what he knows, and a few soldiers deal lightly with conventional ethics, sexuality, and loss. The play takes some of the usual paths for this genre: a soldier becomes more empathetic making his way through the quran, an antagonist sergeant insists his actions are for the greater good, the torture victim becomes a Christ figure; all of these decisions, however, contribute to much higher narrative goals – realizing he’s been hung up like Christ, Ayyub looks at his arms and laughs, etc.
This sort of high-mindedness or inversion in decisions is key here. Aside from all it’s saying about torture, religion, war and humanity, there’s a kind of open social commentary running side-along to the action of the play. The sergeant gets a few laughs in the beginning finding creative ways around swearing; later, some of his more sinister dialogue is made all the more so because he still adheres to those codes: a monster bound futilely in red tape. This contrasts strongly with the foulmouthed soldiers, who undergo reasonably redemptive narrative arcs but also consistently choose correctly when faced with modern social issues.
This production specifically seems to use these decisions as proofs or in-roads: by casting a Caucasian man to play an Iran and Iraq born American citizen, the play opens up a vital discussion about race. Our natural reaction tends to lean towards outrage when a great POC role is given to a white person, but there’s a logic to this decision that bears analysis: Ayyub is the only person tortured in this play, a play that will largely be attended by white audiences. The play goes to great lengths to avoid gratuity in every vicious act it portrays – torture scenes spend more time exploring each character’s humanity than they do on the act itself. The representative nature of this casting decision, then, gives us one further step from the gratuitous truth of the world – I’m not qualified to say if that’s better or worse, but it leaves a great deal to be thought about and discussed.
Skin for Skin is a powerful piece. Its 90 minute run time flies by, it’s subject matter is finally handled well, and Silver specifically puts in a really phenomenal performance. This play seems to know what it’s about without ever really telling – such plays, which dole out questions and not always answers, are good for us.
Previews: February 28th - March 3rd, 2017
Performances: March 4th - April 2nd, 2017
Rivendell Theatre (5779 N. Ridge Avenue)