Skin in Flames | Hot City Theatre

The drama was complex, inviting parallels not only between the couples onstage, but between the play and the world, and oneself and the characters.


Skin in Flames
by Guillem Clua
Translated by DJ Sanders
HotCity Theatre
Directed by Jason Cannon
Through March 12, 2006

Skin in Flames, which premiered March 2 at the Greenhouse—HotCity Theatre’s experimental and developmental arm—is St. Louis playwright DJ Sander’s translation of the Catalan playwright, Guillem Clua’s La Pell en Flames, which had its world premiered in Barcelona last year.

The play centers around a famous photograph, taken twenty years earlier by Frederick Salomon (Peter Mayer), depicting a girl with her back in flames in a war-torn country. Years later, Salomon returns to the country, which is still beset by violence. On the bequest of the United Nations, he is to accept an award in the name of peace. Hanna (Sarah Cannon), a journalist, accompanies Salomon to his hotel room for an interview. Salomon notices the body of a woman in the courtyard, and Hanna, apparently callused to the violence, tosses off the observation. During the interview, she asks personal, driving questions, which Salomon does not want to answer. Finally, Hanna reveals that she was the girl in the photo he took so long ago—or was she?

Before Salomon and Hanna came to the room, it was occupied by another couple: Dr. Brown, a UN representative, and Ida, a woman driven to prostitution in order to gain access to medical care for her gravely ill daughter. For a few pain pills, Ida gives Dr. Brown sexual favors. Dr. Brown promises better care for her daughter, but asks for more and more in return. They leave the room disheveled, and that is how Salomon and Hanna find it.

Both narratives take place onstage at the same time, with the couple occupying different areas of the set, which consisted of a hotel bed, nightstand and phone on one side of a window with billowing white curtains, and a small dresser, coffee pot, table and two chairs on the other. Lighting effectively indicated the late morning setting, without overtly spotlighting the characters throughout. Through clever staging and delivery of overlapping dialogue, a gradual piecing together of the evidence was made possible. The dramatic action between each couple heightened and clarified what went on between the other. The drama was complex, inviting parallels not only between the couples onstage, but between the play and the world, and oneself and the characters.

Peter Mayer, as Salomon, gave an impassioned performance, coming across as a man torn by his own doubts, yet at the same time, refusing to acknowledge them. Always keeping remorse at arm’s length, he stepped back from the chasm of grief just often enough to cause himself the maximum amount of pain. Sarah Cannon created an enigmatic Hannah, a reporter playing games, a victim and a victor, laying traps for Mayer, but never making it fully clear who’s in control. Julie Layton was especially convincing as Ida, the mother willing to go to all ends for her child, yet is still childlike herself. Cold to the affections of Dr. Brown, lovable and sweet as she read her daughter’s favorite children’s book, angered and upset by Dr. Brown’s games, Layton was changeable and dynamic. Terry Meadows, as Dr. Brown, descended in the eyes of the audience from a man who took advantage of his power, to a truly sadistic character. Brown’s rendition of a man on the receiving end of oral sex was quite realistic.

While the play was complex and presented a puzzle to the audience, Jason Cannon’s direction made the action possible to follow. What could have been a jumbled mess worked. letting the message of the play, which is relatively simple, come out of a fascinating mixture of elements.

Guillem Clua was able to be part of the audience at the preview. Dressed in cuffed jeans and a “DIE HIPSTER SCUM” t-shirt, the young playwright joined DJ Sanders after the production to take questions from the audience.

About the conception of La Pelle en Flames, which took place in 2003 shortly after the invasion of Iraq, Clua said, “I wanted to show that all wars are the same war.” Motivated by a “primal need” to write the play, Clua finished the first draft in five days. It was, he said, an effort to use his “weapons” of words to denounce the horror of war. He clarified that the play is not intended to be about the universality of war, but rather, “the universality of horror.” He pointed out that a single girl dying on stage moves an audience more than the news that thousands died that day in another country.

Because the play is not set in any particular time or country, Sanders believes it will play just as strongly ten or twenty years from now. Clua, who wrote the play as a criticism of the “western world,” said he sees it as self-criticism as well, and not specifically a criticism of the United States.

Sanders and Clua met “randomly” through the internet. Clua sent Sanders his play, and Sanders decided he wanted to translate it for American audiences. Sanders noted that the translation was easier than others because he did not have to translate another culture, as the two male characters are Americans.

Because Clua is fluent in English, he was able to assist with the translation, giving Sanders the opportunity to discuss choices he wasn’t sure of. Clua offered feedback throughout the translation process, and said that he was happy with the results.

Clua became especially animated in response to a question about the typical high level of education, economic prosperity, and liberal politics of theater-going audiences, and how this results in the message of a play such as Skin in Flames going out to those who already feel the same way. Waving his hands emphatically, he pointed out that attending a theater performance requires planning, leaving the house, buying tickets, and so on, as opposed to television, which doesn’t require getting off the couch. “Republicans will go to see Cats,” he said, “and they will stick with that.”

Skin in Flames may not be pleasant; it doesn’t on the simply tread on the sore spots of liability, guilt and crime—it dives right in. As to why the play portrays so much horror, Clua said, “Why should I make it more pleasant for the audience?” Skin in Flames, which is nothing like cats, is a complex play for mature, thinking, audiences.


HotCity Theatre presents Skin in Flames by Guillem Clua and translated by DJ Sanders, March 2 through March 12 at the Theatre at St. John‘s (5000 Washington Place). Showtimes are 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, and 7 p.m. Sunday. Thursday tickets are $12 for adults and $10 for students and seniors. Friday and Saturday tickets are $18 for adults and $15 for children, students and seniors. Seating is general admission, not reserved. Reservations can be made online or by calling 314-289-4163.

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