Everyone has a secret

Fringe 2015: Jeanine McCain's 'Under Her Skin'

4 minute read
Stepfordesque women with secrets
Stepfordesque women with secrets

There was a large crowd gathered outside of the Performance Garage for the Saturday evening performance of Under Her Skin, a multimedia dance-theater piece by Jeanine McCain. Too large. I learned quickly that the show had sold out, and many of the people were waiting to see who didn’t show up so that they could get in. I had my tickets ready to go beforehand, so I was not worried. I was wrong not to worry. Chaos erupted as soon as a “line” started to form of an unorganized group without clear instructions on how to get in.

From the back of the line, one could see into the garage as a woman in a red dress started dancing. I started panicking, How could they start the show before everyone is seated? I was not the only one worried about this: Everyone around me started anxiously pressing into the theater, creating a strange clot of humans funneling into the entrance.

Vignettes and fragments

Upon entering — finally — the audience is instructed to visit an array of vignettes around the stage in the theater. Immersive, I think to myself, clever. The first vignette I visit is a sound piece of sorts, with an old radio set up on a messy stack of newspapers while the audio begins, a story about a girl asking about her heritage. Before I am able to hear the story, a beautiful woman in black taps my shoulder and tells me that the performance is starting soon and to visit the other vignettes. I reluctantly move to the next station, feeling like I missed out on something important.

The next station, anchored in the corner, has a woman in black opening old jewelry boxes, taking out objects and examining them thoughtfully. There is more audio: From what I was able to strain to hear above the chaos of everyone trying to find their seats, someone’s grandmother had joined the military and a child was lost.

Quick! Move to the next set! I hurry across the theater to find a clothesline hung with the beautiful treasures of a Victorian-era vintage store hung up on display. Photocopies of passports hung among the clothing. Another girl stands hanging up more items. This is the most thoughtful of the vignettes. This is the most authentic of all of the vignettes.

I scramble to the final vignette, desperate to find the last piece of the puzzle (or at least, some piece of the puzzle) before the show begins. Another clothesline, outlined with the same gold Christmas lights strung up around the theater. This one has Polaroids of people I’ve never seen held up by binder clips, with mysterious names clipped next to them. Are we supposed to write our names and hang them up? I don’t have time to ponder this, because the lights are dimming in the theater. I sprint to a nearby seat, and the performance begins.

Handing off the red dress

The projections in Under Her Skin are breathtaking. The quality of the video and the movements of the actors are stunning. The projections portray the actresses on stage in various stages of dress-up. It’s not clear whether these women are relatives or friends; I decide that they are friends since there is no diversity in age to represent different generations of women. The images are projected onto the cast, dressed in plain white slips from different fashion eras. The performers walk forward meaningfully and begin dancing in a repetitive series of movements. The eras being evoked are unclear to me, as is the significance of the red dress that is handed off from one performer to another. I assume it was meant to represent female empowerment or independence from the Stepford wife ideal. As soon as I begin to think I’m onto some kind of understanding, the cast erupts into a flapperesque, African-inspired dance set to an ethnic drumbeat, a variation of the synthesizer-piano score that plays during the rest of the show. I assume, again, that this is some kind of banding together of the women against “The Man” (the sex of man and government).

Who are these women?

The dancing stops, and the cast moves forward. Each performer reads a name from a piece of paper. I keep waiting to hear a name that I know from history, but I keep waiting. I don’t recognize any of the names. I learn later that these are the names of audience members. This, I assume, is meant to represent that everyone has a story, everyone has a secret.

The show ends rather abruptly, and the performers take their bows. A tearful and happy Jeanine McCain thanks the audience and the cast, and the show is finished. The performance is just shy of 20 minutes.

I leave my seat and go to revisit a few of the vignettes and try to make some sense of what I just saw. As I revisit the tiny pictures set up around the show, I see the attempt at authenticity and even think, These could have been the performance. I think about the projections and think, That could have been the performance. I mentally factor in the dance and the music, and I see the thought there and most importantly, I see ambition. And, I must reluctantly admit, I see a show that bit off a little more than it could chew.

What, When, Where

Under Her Skin. Choreographed by Jeanine McCain. Original score by Garrett Hope. September 4-5, 2015. A performance of the 2015 Fringe Festival at Performance Garage, 1515 Brandywine Street, Philadelphia. fringearts.com or 215-413-1318.

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