Is the personal cost of democracy too high a price to pay if it involves forgoing retribution for reconciliation with your oppressor? How far will individuals go to move to the Western world? These are just some of the thematic questions at the heart of Catalan writer Guillem Clua’s political thriller “Skin in Flames, ” a Chicago premiere for Stage Left Theatre translated by American playwright DJ Sanders. Certainly, these are questions that have been posed before and in better ways by better plays, but probably not quite in the manner in which they have been posed here. Because early on, during a section of important exposition between two characters, an American photojournalist returning to a war-torn, third-world country and the angry female reporter interviewing and then interrogating him, these hard-working actors (Gerrit O’Neill and Amber Starr Friendly, respectively) are sadly upstaged by nudity and simulated fellatio between two others. Now I’m no prude, and I’m all for director David M. Schmitz’s attempt to get the subject matter of “Skin in Flames”—the metaphorical rape and contamination of one country by another—under one’s skin, but when the staging involves a man sitting towards the audience with his legs spread wide open, and a female actress on her knees with her back towards us bobbing her head up and down with her face in his naked crotch for a good fifteen minutes, all I could ponder was what that poor actress was seeing, let alone feeling. (Talk about in yer face theater!) Dramatically, that kind of action pretty much overshadows everything that follows, and since “Skin in Flames” is an intermission-less eighty-minute play, the ambiguous cat and mouse, “did he or didn’t he,” “is she or isn’t she” narrative twists and turns fail to grab hold and establish a tension that the play needs for payoff. That one is still able to take away questions of morality when it comes to humanity and foreign policy speaks more to the psychological baggage one carries into the theater as Westerns at war than it does to the writing. About the only noteworthy climax that the play achieves is the simulated one between some guy’s legs. (Fabrizio O. Almeida)
At Stage Left Theatre, 3408 N. Sheffield, (773)883-8830. This production is now closed.