Brian Belz and Caitlin Robb in Mercury Players Theatre's <i>Skin Tight</i>
The Mercury Players Theatre production of Skin Tight (through May 24 at the Bartell Theatre) opens with a woman's scream piercing the dark. As the lights come up, we see a couple lunging at each other from opposite sides of the stage. Grabbing, scratching, punching and flailing, they pause only long enough to catch their breath, then re-engage. This battle for dominance continues until their rage transforms into desire. The pair dissolve into one another with new urgency. Then they share a disarming laugh. Such is marriage, according to Gary Henderson's searing and poetic play.
Skin Tight, an intense, passionate and unconventional look at the evolution of a relationship, is set in New Zealand, "sometime between now and distant memories." It is a collage of scenes from the courtship and marriage of the couple, Elizabeth and Tom, revisited in the final hours of Elizabeth's life.
Instead of focusing on the couple as they are, stooped and wrinkled with age, with Elizabeth confined to her bed, the play features each person's best self. Their youthful, powerful, vibrant bodies reenact essential moments from the past, translated into dance, wrestling matches, feverish embraces, and dangerous games of trust and betrayal. The simple, spare set, consisting of a metal washtub and two buckets, gives the actors plenty of room to play, and even engage in a raucous water fight as they proceed through this emotional minefield. Green tumbling mats cover the floor to accommodate their extremely physical battles.
Tom, played warmly by Brian Belz, is a farmer and war veteran, a devoted man who inherited property and then lost it during hard times. Belz exudes a calm strength in the role, both physically and emotionally. His playfulness when the couple bickers is charming, and his despair in the midst of loss feels raw and genuine.
As Elizabeth, Catilin Robb deftly manages the character's frequent and sudden emotional turns from nostalgic longing to bitterness, as she tries to manipulate elements of a situation that are out of her control. Robb fills Elizabeth's revelations of infidelity, her anger at an estranged daughter and her fear of leaving her husband with a mixture of melancholy and vulnerability.
Pacing in this 80-minute, one-act play is crucial. Here the production meanders a bit, rushing and fumbling through nonverbal scenes, resting too long in melodrama and occasionally losing focus. Both actors handle the conventional dialogue better than the extended storytelling passages in the script.
And although the violence was well choreographed by Christopher Elst, it was executed tentatively. In such an intimate space as the Bartell Theatre's Evjue Stage, the combat sequences were ultimately unconvincing, undercutting the emotional power of the scenes.
Original music by Morey Burnard underlined sections of the piece, but rather than bind the story together, its inconsistent style makes scenes feel disjointed. Frequently the compositions seem at odds with the poetry of the spoken lines and the folk song that the couple sing to one another.
But any false moments in the middle of the story were beautifully redeemed with a visually stunning final scene that illustrated the depth of Tom and Elizabeth's devotion to each other. A heartbreaking and explosive look back at one couple's intertwined lives as they are about to be separated, the production ultimately paints an evocative picture of a complicated love that lasted a lifetime.