DEAD SKIN ★★½
Kings Cross Theatre, April 8.
It is possible no one can capture the painful, wonderful sense of becoming at age 17 better than a 17-year-old themselves. That’s the age Laneikka Denne was when she wrote Dead Skin. She’s now 19.
The play, about first love and family dysfunction and the ways our patriarchal society harms women and men alike, has a roiling urgency: every moment is almost too big to bear, every development of utmost significance to protagonist Andie (Denne). Her crush strikes like a lightning bolt and we feel it; we see Maggie (Ruby Maishman) through her eyes: she’s the be-all and end-all. When Andie finally works up the courage to ask her out, audience members squealed; it’s easy to get invested.
However, this play’s young perspective can’t as readily grapple with the vastness of things outside personal understanding. Whenever Dead Skin leaves Andie behind and flashes back to her mother’s life (Sarah Jane Kelly), or tries to understand the increasingly alarming sexual and social hang-ups of her father (Abe Mitchell), the language falls into cliche and smacks into its own limits. There’s not enough perspective, and while the parallel points it’s making are smartly chosen, the integration of plot lines is clumsy and poorly handled.
But then again, of course it is. To structure a play the way Dead Skin would need to soar requires complex groundwork and a better sense of its own metaphoric language. That comes with experience. Luckily, Kim Hardwick’s direction tries to give us a sense of place so we aren’t totally unmoored. Every performance is strong and pumped full of conviction; everyone involved is treating a young woman’s words with utmost respect.
The play moves from delightfully sharp insights to over-corrections and purple prose and back again at breakneck speed. The experience of being on the edge of your seat, laughing and cringing, curious at each scene change to see what will happen next, is almost thrilling. But it’s undercooked. It’s wild and deeply messy. It feels unfinished.
And yet it’s the teen-in-love realness, and Denne’s uninhibited performance, that pushes this production over the line into something you might not be able to forget. There’s something that burrows in, like a reminder of a younger self, a study of dangerously open hearts. Keep an eye out for Laneikka Denne. Until April 17.