Saturday, December 17, 2022

The Wild Ass's Skin - A Plays and Playwrights Memory

 In 1999 I got an email from a young man named Barrett Ogden, who was just a couple of years out of theater school at Brigham Young University and had formed a new theater company called Handcart Ensemble with his friend Scott Reynolds. After I reviewed their first show, Andromaque, Barrett and Scott asked if the three of us could have dinner to talk more about their company and its ambitions. We met at a Tibetan restaurant on Houston Street, where either Scott or Barrett had some kind of blue soup; we had a great conversation, and I became an enthusiastic observer of all of Handcart's endeavors. Their second show was The Wild Ass's Skin, which I published in Plays and Playwrights 2002. review - August 11, 2000

One of the most gratifying--not to mention exciting--things about my job is getting to watch young talent learn and grow. The Wild Ass's Skin is a recent, vivid example: its author/director, J. Scott Reynolds, and its leading actor, Barrett Ogden, made their New York debuts a year ago in Reynolds's adaptation of Racine's Andromaque, and while their ambition and effort were praiseworthy, their craft was not yet solidly developed. Look at them now: Reynolds has written a gorgeous, thoughtful dramatization of Balzac's novel, and staged it sparely and beautifully as a simple, powerful parable for the theatre. And Ogden has honed his craft impressively, delivering a near tour de force in the physically and vocally demanding role of a suicidal young man who learns that the thing to beware of most is to get what you wish for. The Wild Ass's Skin is a special kind of theatre--entirely uncommercial and entirely uncompromising. Bravo to Reynolds, Ogden, and their colleagues at Handcart Ensemble for having the courage and good sense to create art to please themselves. Those who come to see what they've done will be pleased as well.

The story of The Wild Ass's Skin is actually quite simple. Valentine, a young man on the brink of suicide, happens upon a bountiful shop filled with all sorts of enticing objects. Its owner turns up, telling him that he's a man who takes pleasure only in acquiring beautiful things: keeping them isn't important. Valentine can have anything in the shop he wants, he says, and then he produces a magical donkey skin to tempt the young man. This skin has the power to grant anything its owner wishes; but the charm comes with a price, for with every wish granted comes a commensurate reduction in the owner's life span.

Valentine takes the donkey skin, meets up with some friends with whom he recounts the unrequited romance that drove him to want to kill himself. He ends the evening in good humor, wishing for vast wealth and riches. Instantly, he gets his wish--and the ass's skin magically shrinks to about half its original size, its charm and its curse both exerting their powers on the stunned young man.

I won't tell you how Valentine's story ends, but I will tell you that you'll be on the edge of your seat waiting to discover what happens next--that's how involving Reynolds's script and staging are. Performed by just five actors on a bare stage with a few props and costume changes, the play engages the imagination and the heart, with sincerity and clarity. Reynolds is becoming quite a fine director: I love the way, in an instant, he is able to take us from a remote street to the lush magical shop or from a dank and drafty boarding house to the Paris Opera, and always with just a subtle change in lighting or attitude. (Designers Tamara Shelp and Mireille Enos should be acknowledged for their contributions here as well.)

Ogden's portrayal of Valentine is layered and touching, showing us the desolation and despair, the elation, and then the gradual achievement of profound knowledge that accompanies this young man on his remarkable journey. In multiple roles, Kevin Ashworth, Christy Summerhays, Erin Treadway, and especially James Mack deliver fine work: Mack's portrayal of the old shopkeeper, in particular, is memorable.

Reynolds's verse is attractive and sometimes quite beautiful, and he's structured his play to make the traditional forms he employs (e.g., iambic pentameter) vital and contemporary, shifting easily among several narrators and through time and space. My only quibble is that the ending seems to come rather too suddenly: I wasn't quite ready, emotionally, for Valentine's story to conclude when it did. But this is a fine piece of work, notable for both its originality and its integrity.


The Wild Ass's Skin ran for about two weeks at the American Theater of Actors on West 54th Street.

Handcart went on to produce at least a play every year for more than a decade, most of them written, adapted, and/or directed by Scott. Among them: Matt Freeman's Genesis, Danish author Kaj Munk's Ordet, and numerous renditions of Greek myths and plays. As I wrote in my introduction to Plays and Playwrights 2002, Scott is a true intellectual and iconoclast, and I don't think he has ever been interested in following any drumbeat other than the one in his heart.

I should note that the collaboration with Matt Freeman came about because Matt was also in Plays and Playwrights 2002; I love when that kind of symbiosis occurs. Two of the other artists who worked on The Wild Ass's Skin--actor Erin Treadway and assistant director Steven Gridley--went on to form a fruitful partnership in theater and in life, and one of their works was published in Plays and Playwrights 2004. (And Mireille Enos, who served as costume designer and choreographer for The Wild Ass's Skin and was a classmate at BYU with Barrett and Scott, has gone on to a very successful career acting on stage, film, and TV.)

I don't think that either Barrett or Scott is still working in theater, which is a shame; but I hope they're still finding fulfillment of their deep artistic talent in whatever they're currently pursuing.

Update: It turns out that Barrett is still working in theater! He wrote me the following:

I served as a professor Acting, Voice, and Movement for several years at a local university, and still act and teach actors privately — in fact, a few years ago I debuted a solo theatrical version of Hamlet in which I played all the roles, and which was adapted into a feature film starring Yours Truly, which is still caught in post-production, though entirely filmed. My most recent theater role was as Edgar Allen Poe in an original Halloween-themed piece entitled Nevermore, which closed at the end of October. We’ll see what the future brings.

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