Pictured (l-r): Tony St. Clair, Steve Silver, and David Goodloe. Photo by Bill Richert.
Review: SKIN FOR SKIN at The Agency Theatre Collective
By Jonald Reyes
“Am I in trouble sir?” asked Mr. Ayyub. Colonel Lewis continued to persistently question the owner of the US military supply transport company. The rapid fire questioning and insistent need for responses left Ayyub, played by Steve Silver, in disarray. The fear and confusion can likely mirror any incident that involves the severe questioning of a Muslim American by a power driven ranked official. Colonel Lewis, played by Tony St. Clair, leads Ayyub into answers he wants to hear, raising the stress level makes to a degree that can enrage even the most patient of people. As the Colonel conducts the conversation to a close, we’re transitioned to Ayyub’s office where military personnel ransack and destroy company files. Then in one fell swoop, they capture Ayyub like a wild animal, throwing a punch, stuffing his mouth, and placing his head in a bag. This is post 9/11.
Paul Pasulka’s SKIN FOR SKIN takes us to Iraq where the search for members of Al-Qaeda is fierce and the US military is hungry for answers. On a set that is decorated with pictures of George W. Bush on one side and the other side a chicken-wired box, which will later be used to imprison someone, we are reminded of a time when fear was used to as a tool by the government to get what they wanted. It was also a time when Muslim Americans were put under a microscope and assumptions of terrorism were immediately used to label them. The play paints an insightful picture of the military’s mentality in the isolated desert camps.
The root of this play is laid out from the beginning as Colonel Lewis & psychologist Dr. O’Brien (Shariba Rivers) provide a military training session on the SERE program. Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape (SERE) training provides military personnel the skills needed while in a hostile environment — in this case, Iraq. Rivers and St. Clair complement each others’ performance well as Rivers upholds a polished astute mannerism while St. Clair delivers a thick abrasive demeanor. St. Clair wears a solid poker face throughout the entire play, and embracing conservative ways, he’s able to deliver manipulative and stern dialogue with no ambiguity. Rivers is able to counter with her own seriousness, and as a psychologist foremost, she’s able to exude a humility & personal connection.
After the audience learns about SERE, a company competition between Ayyub’s business and the LCS transportation firm is introduced. LCS representative Abdul Walli (Sunny Anam) is a two-faced character that plays nice to Ayyub, but is fast to report errors of his business to the military for gain. It’s this that gets the Colonel suspicious of Ayyub, which leads into the company raid & captivity. Anam delivers an upbeat jokester attitude but has a couple of opportunities where his energy can shift to help raise the stakes of the scene, especially while witnessing the capturing of Ayyub. Steve Silver is a complete professional throughout the play, and his charisma has the ability to keep the audience invested. The cast, overall, has a solid presence on stage, yet there are a couple of possible opportunities where heightening the emotion & pace could wake the audience up more to the situation in-hand.
Another storyline mixed in involves Sergeant Lindsey (Hannah Tarr) and Private Michaels (David Goodloe). With their continual undertaking of the Colonel’s commands and the complete solitude of their surroundings, moments of being stir crazy could have been planted a bit more. Yet their point of view is well summarized when the Sergeant says “We’re GI dogs. We ain’t got nothing to do with innocence.” Not only does that apply to their stance on Ayyub but it speaks just as much to the reason of all their actions during this time of military warfare.
Director Michael Menendian cleverly splits the stage into four sections, utilizing projected slides & short films to illustrate the story. Menendian overlaps transitions, which keeps the play fluid. Just when everything seems to be straight-laced, the playwright takes an interesting risk with a dreamlike hallucination. With many elements to play with, the multiple layers could be tighter, and an interchanging of affection could add further depth to scenes. Just as America was bewildered after the September 11th attacks, SKIN FOR SKIN exemplifies the confusion, fear and prejudice the US military projected on American Muslim’s during a time of extreme chaos.
SKIN FOR SKIN runs through April 2nd. For more information visit WeAreTheAgency.org.