“Skeleton Crew” Works Very Well

Spooky season proliferates throughout the Capital Region, where ghost tours, haunts and Time Warps can be found throughout the area but there is surely no scarier tale being told in the area this weekend than in the aptly titled “Skeleton Crew” by Dominique Morisseau entering its closing weekend at the Lauren and Harold Iselin Studio upstairs at theREP. “Skeleton Crew” is Morisseau’s workplace drama in her acclaimed three-play Detroit Project, which also includes “Detroit ‘67” and “Paradise Blue.” The time is the recession of 2008, and the setting is the break room at an auto stamping plant in Detroit. Times are tough, and although all four characters are gainfully employed, there is always the threat of the other shoe dropping. There is an almost open rumor that the plant will be closing within the year, which would certainly explain all the cost-cutting measures whose onerous demands fall on the employees. The term skeleton crew refers to a shift of workers who have been pared back to the minimum needed to get the job done.

Photo by Robert Gertler

Morisseau is an exceptionally gifted playwright who works with great themes in all her plays, whether they are set in the historical past or contemporary times, and seemingly effortlessly weaves in details that reveal our emotional, spiritual and civic life. She writes singular characters that jump off the page and challenge the actors in her plays to bring them to full, varied and messily contradictory life. She has a wicked sense of humor, sharp turn of phrase and can make her audience laugh, gasp or be ineffably moved as she does here with Hettie Barnhill’s imaginative and nurturing direction. Barnhill leans on her strong background and contributes dance videos to the evening, as well.

Photo by Robert Gertler

The characters in this play are: Faye, the salty matriarch played to a T by the terrifically grounded Regina Robinson; the hothead dreamer Dez, forcefully played by stage newcomer Frank Wilson; the prospective single mother Shanita, who Artinces Smith gives a calming, hopeful presence with her near-constant cradling of her pregnant belly; and finally the put upon boss Reggie, who can be blustery and threatening, especially in a strong confrontation with Dez, but also reveals a tender insecurity when he talks of the new house he and his wife have bought. There is one more character titled The Performer, who you will not find in the printed script. He is Tele (TK) Rabii, who provides expressive dance breaks during many of the scene breaks, attired in a neon safety work vest and work helmet. The dances are vivid, kinetic and make the point that the bodies are part of the machinery with every move. His final breakdown electrified the house and received extended applause.

Photo by Robert Gertler

The plant is closing, a baby is expected, and there are suspicious activities happening at the plant that need investigation. As the employees bicker and bond over their breakroom habits (not unlike “Hard Candy & Misdemeanors” at TFT last month), Morisseau introduces plot points such as worker exploitation, single motherhood, the unhoused, addictive habits, homophobia and guns. The scares are real and ongoing. The poster of Obama on the wall is a haunting reminder of a more hopeful time.

Black Theatre Troupe of Upstate NY kicks off their ’24/’25 season with this powerful drama by one of the country’s premiere playwrights, who we have seen precious little of in the Capital Region. Only “Pipeline” has been produced so far, I believe, by SLCA. BTTUNY is not only doing the invaluable task of discovering, encouraging, and training the diverse theater makers needed for the health and growth of Capital Region Theater, but they also have the most adventurous slates of shows which are wildly supported. I’ve never seen more than a half dozen seats empty at a BTTUNY show.

Photo by Robert Gertler

The evening is long and some of the playing, especially in the confrontations, is not as varied as it needs to be but quibbles aside BTTUNY has provided another essential evening of Capital Region Theatre and we are all the better for it!

“Skeleton Crew” runs through this Sunday, 10/29 at theREP. Tickets available at: www.blacktheatretroupeupstateny.org

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