SKINNAMARINK will induce trauma in all those who survived the relentlessly upbeat indoctrination machine that is the United States public school system. From the warm, perky voice issuing orders through the intercom on the wall to the lime green uniforms, much of Little Lord’s latest provocation feels familiar from grade school days. The dead body outline on the floor, not so much.
That outline is the first of many clues that all is not copacetic in the Dick and Jane-meets-Blue Velvet world of SKINNAMARINK, a self-proclaimed “part recess, part ritual, part recruitment” consisting of monologues, exercises, and game-playing based in part on McGuffey’s Eclectic Readers, which were used to educate millions of impressionable American youth in the 19th and 20th centuries.
The energetic, blonde-wigged performers look like slightly demented refugees from Whoville, their noses taped to their faces and their mouths smeared with chunky peanut butter. They eagerly obey the orders of The Intercom (provided by Kate Weber, barely visible in the red-white-and-blue-lit control booth), which guides them lovingly but mechanically from task to task. It’s heightened and playful and strange, but so is early childhood. Many productions attempt to see the world through a child’s eyes, but SKINNAMARINK’s anti-naturalist aesthetic seems to come closer than most.
Little Lord’s method of devised theater has fashioned a company remarkably keyed in to one another’s energy. There are no standouts among the uniformly strong company, but Joshua William Gelb and Fernando Gonzalez get an especially juicy pair of roles as creepy twins, eventually forced to externalize the shame inherent in the McGuffey exercises, wearing a comically large dunce cap and a toilet seat that reads “I couldn’t hold it.”
The show is more performance art than play, moving from one manic vignette to the next with a free-floating nightmare logic that consistently undermines attempts at meaning-making. Little Lord bills it “a savage piece for savage times,” but there’s little in the performance itself to support that assertion.
The work is preoccupied with the various forms of oppression built into the system, from fatphobia to homophobia to racism to sexism and on down the line, but the idea that America begins to separate the “ins” from the “outs” at a young age, all while creating unthinking automatons, is hardly novel.
SKINNAMARINK is instead best enjoyed for the loose cannon energy of its performances. The actors ping pong around the stage, rearranging themselves in a dizzying array of lines and shapes. In director Michael Levinton’s most inspired staging moment, the company waits in line like good little boys and girls to put in dental cheek retractors, only to attempt to sing “Happy Birthday” while drinking water from tiny paper cups. What it means is anyone’s guess, but entirely beside the point; the sheer Buñuelian chutzpah of the image is a welcome respite from the drudgery that sets in early in the performance.
It’s not a lack of energy; if anything, there’s too much going on at any given moment to allow the points to land. And it’s certainly not as bad as being forced to spend 8 hours in a fusty school on a sunny day. It’s clear, though, that the piece has a lot to say; I couldn’t help but wish every once in a while that they would quit burying it in abstraction and just say it.