Theater | Not Blown Away: One flawed performance blunts the thematic impact of Skin in Flames 

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Sometimes, you just want a play to be better than it is. For its own sake, I mean. Sometimes, a production brings so much essential humanity to the stage in front of you, and touches on so many important themes that you want to forgive its incidental failings and just focus on its merits.

Skin in Flames, currently playing at Salt Lake Acting Company, boasts a powerful and original script with interesting and believable characters, set in a world that is familiar despite its lack of specificity. Most of the performances are top-notch, some of the best I’ve seen on a Salt Lake stage. One of the actors, however, does not hold up her end—and therein lies the rub.

Twenty years ago, Fredrick Salomon (Morgan Lund), took an iconic photograph in an unnamed war-torn country, presumably in Latin America. Now he’s back to receive an award from a government made up of the rebels from that late conflict. He doesn’t shoot photos anymore, but he does drink a lot. He’s being interviewed in “the best suite in the best hotel in town” by Hanna (Kenya Rene), a reporter for the remaining state-run newspaper. She isn’t really taking notes, and she has a handgun in her purse.

Ida (Deena Marie Mazanares), is a local woman with mysterious scars on her back. She works in a factory and has a chronically ill daughter in a local hospital. Dr. Brown (Paul Kiernan) is an American who claims to give Ida’s daughter special treatment so long as Ida promises to meet him in this hotel and give him special treatment, if you know what I mean.

A warning: The relationship between Dr. Brown and Ida, though exceedingly well-executed, is essentially an extended metaphor for North-South relations that is expressed in a particularly brutal sexual fashion. Despite SLAC’s warnings on its Website, a handful of theatergoers walked out of the performance I attended, presumably due to its graphic nature.

The dynamics of each of the storylines are interesting and compelling on their own. Both bring big issues about the interactions between the developed and developing worlds down to the level of the individual in meaningful and effective ways.

The innovative approach to these two separate narratives, however, finds them acted out onstage at the same time using the one hotel-room set. Let me repeat that to make it clear: The two different stories occur simultaneously on the stage, with each pair of actors ignoring and maneuvering around the other in a tightly choreographed ballet. The respective moments in each storyline are often complementary or intentionally ironic, each serving to subtly editorialize on the other. Director Roger Benington—formerly of the now-defunct Tooth & Nail Theatre Company—does a masterful job of bringing the intricate vision of playwright Guillem Clua (with translation by DJ Sanders) to the stage.

But then there’s that aforementioned weak link. Kenya Rene, who plays reporter Hanna, is consistently wooden throughout. The show relies heavily on nuanced internal worlds from all of the actors, particularly in the numerous moments during which the action shifts from one pair of actors to the other, yet all remain onstage. Rene is unable to maintain the tense ambiguity that the character requires and, instead, gives us only emotional blankness or outright antagonism, with neither seeming right for the moment or believable in its own right.

With a different actor in the role of Hanna, Skin in Flames could easily have been the best thing I’ve seen in town this season. It’s frustrating to see a production that could have been great turn out merely good. But it is still good, with compelling and timely themes presented with unique storytelling. I was impressed. I just wish I’d been blown away.

SKIN IN FLAMES @ Salt Lake Acting Company, 168 W. 500 North. Through Feb. 24. 363-SLAC, SaltLakeActingCompany.org

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Rob Tennant

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Rob Tennant is a Salt Lake City freelance writer.

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