"Sensitive Skin" at the Elephant Asylum Theatre Blood is Thinner Than Water

(L to R): Warren Cole as Nick, Marquerite Moreau as Julia, Kate Ascott Evans as Eden

Friday, May 19th marked the opening night of Sensitive Skin, written by Shem Bitterman and directed by David Fofi, at the Elephant Asylum Theatre. In this modern day love story, what starts as a challenge between brothers ultimately ends in a torrid game of sex and betrayal that threatens to destroy the lives, and relationships, of everyone involved.

Eden (Kate Ascott Evans), a struggling photographer/bartendress, meets Todd (Paul Wesley), a wayward twenty-something-year-old, at her first group art show and a one night stand leads to a passionate, yet brief relationship. Nick (Warren Cole), Todd's brother, is a successful doctor as well as Todd's antithesis. While Nick competes with Todd to win the heart of Eden, Julia (Marquerite Moreau), a stripper and Eden's gal pal, is overcome with jealousy. Love is eventually overshadowed by the desire to win, and a challenge between brothers inevitably leads to catastrophe.

The title, Sensitive Skin, foreshadows the intricate, complex, and unreliable interpersonal relationships that are the crux of the play. All of the relationships are, indeed, "sensitive." The tension, nervousness, and pain are evident in every interaction between the characters. The familial bonds between brothers is nothing more than jealousy wrapped in unfulfilled potential, empty promises, broken plans, and a struggle over who is the better man. In the first few scenes of the play, Todd and Nick shift rapidly from playful banter to spiteful threats. A gentle nudge on the shoulder instantaneously escalates to headlocks and death threats. This volatile relationship is reminiscent of the rapid fluctuations of mood between mania and depression seen in bipolar disorder. Interestingly, towards the end of the play, it is clear that Todd does in fact suffer from bipolar disorder, for he displays the classic symptoms: rapid speech, disconnected thoughts, sleeplessness, and grandiosity. However, while Todd's illness is briefly touched upon in one scene in the second half of the play, this story line is never fully developed. Although Todd's degenerative problem is made clear in this scene, it is never mentioned again. Todd simply fades out of the play and is not heard from again until the very last scene. This was a bit disappointing given the potential complexity of Todd's character. As a result, Todd's character is never fully developed. When Todd does reappear in the last scene to offer the only honest critique of Eden heard in the play, this insightful moment passes without a second thought. 

(Clockwise from top): Warren Cole as Nick, Marquerite Moreau as Julia, Paul Wesley as Todd, Kate Ascott Evans as Eden

Unfulfilled story lines did not stop with Todd. The relationship between Julia and Eden was also left unexplored, undeveloped, and unresolved. From the very beginning of the play, the friendship between the two women was heavy with lesbian undertones. Despite an occasional drunken kiss, Julia's desire for Eden was not reciprocated. Julia, for the most part, was lovesick and jealous. However, instead of capturing and developing the intensity of such a powerful and dominating emotion like jealousy, the character of Julia merely pouts in the corner, literally. In scenes when another character is present on stage with Julia and Eden, Julia wanders to the corner of the stage to smoke a joint, linger in the doorway, or slouch against a wall. Thus, instead of conveying jealousy, Julia sulks. A brooding Julia is very disappointing, especially given the character's complex psyche, or potential psyche. Julia is sexually confused, in love with her best friend that does not return her affections, watches as the woman she loves engages in self-destructive behaviors in addition to bouncing back and forth between two brothers, and works as a stripper instead of pursuing her dream of attending art school. With all of these stresses, Julia has the potential to show a lot more than just a pout. This character is not sensitive, she is predictable and boring. And yet again, the audience is left with another flat character on stage.

The scenes were broken up by collections of images from Eden's work that played on the back wall of the set. Not surprisingly, the images played were mainly of Eden nude. The images were intended to connect the scenes, conveying the message of the scene through still photography. Nevertheless, the scenes still seemed a bit staggered, never quite meeting on the same emotional plane. The scenes were like two ships crossing in the night, unknowingly sailing right past each other. Events were not clearly conveyed. In fact, the play seemed rushed and pressured to fit all of the ideas into a set time frame. The diluted storylines unfortunately prevented the actors from fully embracing their characters and left the audience emotionally uninvolved, and unwilling to believe the actors or the script.

Sensitive Skin has the potential to be a great play. A story about brothers is an engaging one, yet it is overshadowed by a manipulative and narcissistic character, Eden. I would have liked to see the development of the other three characters and a more insightful look into the relationships with each other rather than their relationships with one character, Eden. All four of the characters and their interactions with each other offer a great opportunity to critically explore the boundaries of the human spirit when forced to interact with and negotiate the turmoil of another person. After all, our skin, the body's defense against the outside world, is in constant contact with others no matter how sensitive it may be.

Paul Wesley as Todd, Kate Ascott Evans as Eden

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