BWW Review: Campfire Tales and Mythic Origins Made Modern in SECOND SKIN
The substance of effective storytelling is development and transformation, whether it be a character whose trials give them new understanding of themselves or their situation, or it be a situation altered by the actions of the characters. Second Skin, playwright Kristin Idaszak's play about a mother and daughter, both haunted, both struggling for escape from isolation, is a delicate and sensitive portrayal of a family of women constantly effected by this struggle for transformation, both literal and psychological. Second Skin is a ghost story, a mystical reinterpretation of the Irish myth of selkies-an oceanfront campfire tale of intimate whispers that makes the characters' stories personal to the audience.
Second Skin features unique aspects. It's a play entwined indefinitely with its setting--it's a campfire-style story that describes a family's tragic fascination with the ocean, an indefinable force that urges them closer to the vastness of the crashing waves. Three characters, Quinn, Quinn's ill mother Sigrid, and Sigrid's sister, Aislinn, tell their stories--personal tales that overlap to create a communal history--on the beach, the beckoning and foreboding sounds of the sea in the background. Each character has their own version of events. Holes in the story are filled with the introduction of new characters, but so too do these new points of view present opposing facts and feelings. As with all stories, Second Skin has many versions, and the audience gets the opportunity to piece together a whole truth. There's certainty throughout, but point of view creates nuance, and that nuance creates specific characterization of each woman.
In brief, Second Skin is a modern version of the Irish selkie myth in which women who drown in the sea become immortal creatures resembling a seal, destined to spend eternity in the ocean. They can, however, come ashore and take human form by shedding their selkie skin-yet, they can't return to the sea without their skin, thus becoming trapped in an existence between the living and the dead, between the shore and the sea. The legend oft tells of men who fell in love with selkies, and hid their second skin to keep them imprisoned in human form. It's a tragic concept of love across boundaries that cannot fully be crossed, about souls caught between worlds.
An interview with Kate Jopson, the young director behind this work of drama, a production that resonates its beauty and tragedy against the natural setting of the ocean:
Q: You've said that this play was meant to be performed at the beach. How does the mood or structure of the play change when a beach space isn't available for performance?
KJ: The only place we've performed it away from the beach was at Westmont University. While we missed the resonance with the ocean, we learned a lot from having a fence surrounding the performance area and making a concrete boundary that the performers could not cross. This barrier enhanced the fact that the characters felt isolated; without a home. A mother and her teenage son came to see the show at Westmont and on the car ride home, the mother was saying that she would have liked the actress playing Aislinn (the selkie) to be closer. The boy stopped her and said, "No, mom, she can't. That's the point. She feels like she doesn't belong." While I prefer the beach, performing the play in other locations has helped us discover new layers we didn't see before.
Q: I like that the personal narratives in this story fill in the holes of previous characters' versions, giving a more complete vision of the story from all angles, while still maintaining the very human concept of unreliability. Do you think the interpretation the story would be different if the characters were presented in a different order? [Second Skin first features Quinn's story of her struggles with her mother, Sigrid, and her struggle to take care of Sigrid when she becomes ill; Sigrid then offers her story about feeling haunted by her long-lost sister who drowned as a teenager; Aislinn's version of events comes third.]
KJ: From a story-telling perspective, the order of narratives creates the "reveals." The biggest reveal happens in Sigrid's monologue, so if she went first, I think her story would have to hold back information for the story to be compelling. We also talked about the audience being "Quinn's" audience. She talks to us like we're her friends, like she's venting about part of her life that she had previously kept hidden. Sigrid and Aislinn have to enter into that knowing the audience has been primed against them, and try to win them over to their side of the story.
3) There's a plethora of beautiful metaphors throughout this play, some more overt than others. What is the overarching metaphor that you feel is the most important? What do you think may get overlooked based on subtlety that you'd like people to pay attention to?
KJ: The metaphor that ghosts are actually our own guilt is powerful. I don't believe in ghosts as physical beings, but I absolutely believe in them as psychological ones. I have seen people haunted by something from their past for their entire lives and the more they try to bury it, the worse it gets. The suffering in this play is caused by characters clinging to people or things so hard they become part of their identity; the only suffering we can truly end is our own. A "ghost" is created by clinging to these aspects of life that causes you the most pain and refusing to let go, to "find resolution," as ghost stories often say. Although we reference the ocean a both physically and in the text, what it represents might not be overt until you sit with it for awhile. The ocean symbolizes the afterlife in this play. Death and change are inevitable and the oceans tides, the beautiful yet dangerous waves, give me the same feeling as when I contemplate death or the vastness of space.
4) Describe your approach to showing the sensuality that's featured in this play; whether it's the idea of slipping in and out of soft skin, the jolts of energy Quinn feels when she meets Aislinn in the bar, etc. The strangeness of the selkie tale and the thwarted intimacy that the characters feel (in their personal lives and toward each other) makes for a fascinating and twisted sexual undercurrent.
KJ: The characters in Second Skin have repressed so much in their lives that if you make the tension real for the actors, you don't have to work too hard for the sexuality. It comes as a release, a brief relief from the loneliness and isolation of their lives and stories. The play would works if the story is in the bodies of the actors, not just in their heads.
5) It's a ghost story, yes, and a campfire story. But it's also very personal, and certainly a story of love lost. Tell me about the literal and figurative haunting of these characters.
KJ: We like to call it a ghost story because that is the simplest way of describing it to people. But ultimately, the heart of it is a very relatable story about trying to break out of isolation and connect with those we love and the barriers that prevent us from doing so. I think secrets can be one of the most damaging things to any relationship, even "white lies." In this story, one mistake and one lie cause a ripple of damage; it takes being faced with death to unwind it. I also love that this story takes the traditional Irish myth of selkies, which is usually about the love between a woman and a man, and shifts it to be about a family of women.
6) Do you see this play a literal story based in the fantastic? Or a fantastic story based in the real world?
KJ: The fantastical things that happen are real, though the characters view the extraordinary with the same skepticism we would if we encountered them in the world. Like many folktales, I hope the audience appreciates the metaphor and the moral that can be applied to our own lives.
by Kristin Idaszak
Directed by Kate Jopson
Runs through May 15th, in front of Annenberg Beach House, 415 Pacific Coast Hwy., Santa Monica. See it this weekend!