Dedicated specialists have struggled since the time of Brecht to keep the theatre alive. The diagnosis is clear: Film and television have set in. But approaches to treatment differ. The Broadway and off-Broadway approach, essentially palliative, staves off death with injections of cash for movie stars and elaborate spectacles. Then there is off-off-Broadway, a loose-knit community of alternative practitioners whose experimental methodologies sometimes produce serious work of surprising relevance and vitality. One such examples is “Skylar,” which just premiered at the New York International Fringe Festival.
A compelling and thought-provoking new play by Jonathan G. Galvez, “Skylar” explores the circumstances and attitudes surrounding the vicious beating of Skylar Daniels, a transgender teenage boy. Played with facility and conviction by Eli Denson, Skylar appears only in scenes recalled by his father, teacher, and girlfriend as they anxiously await his recovery at the hospital. This skillful interweaving of linear and non-linear storylines heightens the tension and allows the playwright to use dramatic events from the past to illustrate what would otherwise be an undramatic debate set in the present. Director Kristen Keim relies on lighting and blocking cues to shift the focus seamlessly between storylines and employs the distance between the waiting area and the nurse’s station to excellent effect as a means of concretizing the antagonism between the individual and the institution.
The nurse, played by the highly talented Dana Scurlock with help from Gladys Hendricks as a sympathetic doctor, does an outstanding job of bridging this divide by striking a balance between representing the institution and revealing her own individuality. Her conversation with Skylar’s girlfriend Pamela (played by Kaitlyn Gill) about the politics of gender and sexuality is one of the highlights of the play. For her part, Gill capably manages the difficult task of playing a high school student without lapsing into parody, a tendency that underlies Ashton Garcia’s amusing but less affecting performance as a fellow student in two smaller roles.
As their teacher, Sam Lopresti portrays the play’s most complex and conflicted character, and he handles it admirably. Whether breaking up a fight, comforting a grieving parent, supporting a cause he feels ambivalent about, or obsessing neurotically over his own teaching career and lack of a personal life, he remains grounded in his character and provides just the right amount of ironic distance from the play’s heavy issues and events. As Skylar’s father, Eric Novak turns in an intense performance that becomes more assured and nuanced as the evening progresses; the impression at first is less of a character too distraught to listen than of an actor too focused on his own performance to listen.
Mark Levy, clearly a talented actor, has the thankless job of portraying the play’s straw men, and unfortunately he does little to flesh them out. Part of the blame lies with the playwright, particularly in the case of the priest, a one-dimensional mouthpiece for catholic bigotry. But even here Levy could defend his role by playing a character that has his reasons, rather than an actor critiquing his character. Brecht’s estrangement effect has it’s place, but when used only on characters whose views we disagree with, it amounts to little more than preaching to the choir–which literally happens at the end of the play when a student delivers a speech expressing the playwright’s message.
Denson’s Skylar serves as a counterpoint to Levy’s characters, not only because he represents the opposite end of the political spectrum, but because he is presented almost uncritically, albeit as a compelling, three-dimensional human being. He falsely claims Native American heritage to win a lawsuit, he seduces a naive girl under the pretext of tutoring her, he accuses his teacher of transphobia with the self-righteous wrath of a Senator McCarthy, and he condescends to everyone. Is the playwright saying that Skylar’s group affiliation justifies his behavior? If not, why don’t the other characters challenge it?
But asking yourself these and other questions is part of the pleasure of watching “Skylar” in particular and plays of ideas in general. The main advantage of theater over film, as Brecht recognized early on, is its ability to distance us from a given situation so that we can consider the underlying causes objectively and rationally. In a country split along a seemingly unbridgeable ideological rift, the play of ideas can heal more than just the theatre. It can heal our country’s divided mind. But only if we write from a place of honest inquiry. Only if we recognize the bad in ourselves and the good in the other. Only if we meet the other halfway. Galvez has gone far in this direction, and I encourage him to go further. In the meantime, do yourself and your country a favor and go see “Skylar.”