BWW Reviews: MYSTERIOUS SKIN Debuts at Darkhorse Theater for 4-Performance Run


Kirk-Burgess Productions makes an auspicious debut on the Nashville theatrical scene with a solid production of Prince Gomolvilas' play Mysterious Skin, based on the Scott Heim novel of the same name, that weaves together the interconnected stories of two young men, each struggling to overcome his horrific past.

It becomes very clear in the play's early scenes what will play out over the almost two hours of playing time and even a cursory examination of the production's synopsis is likely to telegraph the somewhat controversial and troubling subjects broached in Mysterious Skin. The sexual abuse of young boys by a male authority figure (in this case, their little league coach) and the aftermath of that abuse figures significantly in the plot as the stories of Neil McCormick (a young, gay hustler played with conviction by JoNathan Burgess) and Brian Lackey (a troubled 18-year-old community college student who believes he was abducted by aliens, played with revelatory focus by Will Butler) unfold before you.

While Heim's original novel moves along chronologically, Gomolvilas' play employs flashbacks to tell the shared stories of Brian and Neil-a theatrical convention which would work better if the action moved seamlessly from one scene to the next. As it is, however, given the constraints of the intimate setting of the Darkhorse Theater performance space (which, admittedly, adds to the overall sense of unease you are likely to feel as you watch Mysterious Skin), scene transitions are sometimes clunky and much too noisy in execution. Perhaps the play would be better served by a more abstract set design and visual aesthetic. Lighting designer David McGinnis provides interesting and atmospheric lighting to focus one's attention where it needs to be, but the stage often seems too cluttered with furniture (and the people moving it) that proves distracting.

But that is really a minor quibble when compared to the strength of the show's cast. Co-directors L.T. Kirk and JoNathan Burgess (who also stars as Neil) have assembled a capable ensemble of actors who bring the show's many characters to life with thorough commitment, delivering richly nuanced performances. However, Gomolvilas' script sometimes proves to be too detailed, too wordy, and the actors are made to declaim in stentorian voices while overacting and, sometimes, rushing lines.

When first we meet Brian, he is writing in his journal, giving us a glimpse into his background: he believes he was twice abducted by aliens and he is visiting a young Kansas woman (Francine Berk, in a carefully crafted performance as Avalyn) who claims to have been taken away by otherworldly figures on numerous occasions. Butler's Brian is a nervous, anxious young man who seems uncomfortable in his own skin, fighting however valiantly to find some sense of calm and order in his life, believing that if he can prove his abduction by aliens that all will return to some sense of normal.

We meet Neil at a coffee house in New York City, where he's come on this particular day to tell his best friend Wendy (played with a natural sense of post-adolescent self-importance by Samantha Rogers) that he has returned to hustling in order to raise funds for a holiday trip back home to Kansas. They rail and rant against each other with believable intensity and flashbacks help to fill in the blanks of their past. When Neil admits that he first prostituted himself as a 15-year-old, it's not especially controversial or startling; however, when he says he lost his virginity at age eight and was, in fact, deeply in love with the 40-year-old little league coach who had sex with him at that tender age, it's sure to make some in the audience feel uncomfortable.  

We've all seen enough episodes of Law and Order: SVU that the play's subject matter is nothing new-and we've all been privy to enough details in the case of former Penn State coach Jerry Sandusky-that this revelation is almost lacking in shock value. What will shock some audience members, however, is the play's depiction of pre-adolescent sexuality and the consideration of pedophilia as anything other than an act of physical and emotional dominance. There's also a discomfiting scene in which Neil is manhandled by a client (played with convincing intensity by Chuck Long, who doubles as Neil's mostly absent father and another of his clients) which escalates to a realistically depicted beating and rape that, frankly, should make you feel uncomfortable. Provocative to be certain, it is neither titillating nor sensational, rather it's a violent act that should be viewed as such and, most assuredly, should cause you to question previously held notions.

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Jeffrey Ellis Jeffrey Ellis is a Nashville-based writer, editor and critic, who's been covering the performing arts in Tennessee for more than 25 years. He is the recipient of the Tennessee Theatre Association's Distinguished Service Award for his coverage of theatre in the Volunteer State and was the founding editor/publisher of Stages, the Tennessee Onstage Monthly. He is a past fellow of the National Critics Institute at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre Center and is the founder/executive producer of The First Night Honors, held during Labor Day Weekend, which honor oustanding theater artists in Tennessee in recognition of their lifetime achievements and includes The First Night Star Awards and the Most Promising Actors. Midwinter's First Night, held the first Sunday in January after New Year's Day, honors outstanding productions and performances throughout the state. Further, Ellis directed the Nashville premiere of La Cage Aux Folles, The Last Night of Ballyhoo and An American Daughter, as well as award-winning productions of Damn Yankees, Company, Gypsy and The Rocky Horror Show, with Ellis honored by The Tennessean as best director of a musical for both Company and Rocky Horror.

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