Anyone attending Skin in Flames is advised to wear asbestos clothes. This intense Spanish drama by Guillem Clua, which is receiving its American premiere at the hands of HotCity Theatre's GreenHouse, ignites a theatrical wildfire of suspense and surprise that sears the imagination.
Written two years ago in response to America's invasion of Iraq, the play is set in the capital city of an unnamed war-torn Third World nation upon which democracy has been forcibly imposed. The intricately structured plot chronicles two stories that appear to be playing out simultaneously (how can this be?) in "the best suite in the best hotel in the city." The first concerns the world's most celebrated photographer, who is about to receive an extravagant United Nations-sponsored prize in recognition of a now-iconic war photo he snapped in this same ravaged town decades earlier.
The immortal shot depicts a girl on fire, hurling through space after a bomb blast. (Clearly the playwright intends to call to mind Nick Ut's Pulitzer Prize-winning 1972 photo of a naked Vietnamese girl running through her village after having been burned by napalm.) In Skin in Flames, although the victim of the bomb blast has "disappeared without a trace," her image has become a lofty symbol of peace throughout the world. But Frederick Salomon, who took the photo, is not so lofty. In a contentious interview with a local reporter (Sarah Cannon), Salomon reveals himself as a metaphor for all smug, well-intentioned but ineffectual Westerners, too dependent on their creature comforts, who aimlessly drift through life.
Peter Mayer's Salomon is a crafty accumulation of calculated details: the weary, war-inflicted limp; the white gloves that seem even paler when palpable tension turns his forehead various shades of scarlet. This is Mayer's most compelling and commanding work since his deft turn in another electrifying American premiere, In a Little World of Our Own, which HotHouse Theatre Company staged in 2003.
The second story involves Ida, a timid factory worker who, in order to acquire medicine for her ailing child, is sadistically exploited by a sexual predator of a doctor (Terry Meddows, chillingly benign). Those who find these goings-on too graphic might prefer to stay home in front of their television sets and watch reports of suicide bombers blowing people to smithereens. Skin in Flames isn't that easy; the play presents violence as voyeurism.
Perhaps Ida too is a metaphor: the innocent foreigner raped by the salacious Westerner. But no one's going to be thinking about metaphors when Julie Layton is onstage. Layton has always been noted for her porcelain beauty and onstage charm, but never before has she been asked to excavate the dark shafts of her soul. She rises to the challenge with a performance that shames the viewer, just as Ida has been shamed. As she then transforms Ida into a heroine worthy of Greek tragedy, Layton's shattering work leaves a raw scar on the memory.
St. Louis is only the second city in the world to see Skin in Flames and the first to see it in English, for which we can all thank Washington University graduate student D.J. Sanders. Because, via e-mail, he was able to consult (at times even collaborate) with the playwright, this translation from the Catalan language (original title: La pell en flames) is unexpectedly fluid. The production, directed by Jason Cannon, is in many ways significantly revised from the version that debuted in Barcelona last year.
One can only hope that the revisions won't stop here. Structurally the 80-minute, intermissionless play already is so far superior to most new American scripts that it demands seeing. But in its current condition there are still too many words. The final third gets bogged down in the underbrush of verbiage and requires thinning. Clua needs to say less and show more. If he will return to his own premise the scorching impact of imagery he might be able to tighten and elevate Skin in Flames into a drama of enduring import.