Elisa sits alone in the warm yellow light of a Brussels cafe. She begins to tell a love story. But soon after she has begun, she suddenly stops. She inspects her reflection in a compact mirror. “What was I saying?” she asks. And then, just as suddenly, she is onto another story. At first, it seems that the stories are accounts of her own romantic escapades, but she switches so abruptly and so often, between places and names and even genders, that it eventually becomes clear that the stories are not drawn from her own experience. At least, not entirely. We eventually learn her compulsive storytelling stems from an ever-present worry that her skin is growing too quickly.
She believes that telling tales of love are the only way to prevent her from being engulfed inside mounds of her own flesh.
Essentially a one-woman show (with a periodic appearances from one supporting member), Elisa is well played by Tanja Jacobs who exudes a remarkably forceful presence onstage that is essential to her role, but many of her transitions from story to story are awkward and abrupt. She does, however, capture the endearing, quiet quirkiness of her character, as well as the intense emotions Elisa experiences as she tells other people’s tales of love and passion. Empathy is a clear theme in Elisa’s Skin, with the title character often stopping to ask the audience if we can feel the racing heartbeat or the sweating palms of the lovers she is describing.
But even in this short play—one-act just over an hour long—it’s difficult to keep such intensity going, in part because Elisa herself remains such an enigma that the play seems almost to be a series of vignettes.
This enigmatic quality of the character not only makes it hard for the audience to grow attached to Elisa, but it also makes its difficult grasp the metaphoric arguments about love and salvation that the play continues to poke around. Elisa’s Skin contains moments of beautiful and inventive writing, complimented by the intriguing concept at its core.
However, that concept—that talking about love can create an empathy in which we can experience something of love, and can thus be a saving grace—is not as clearly developed as it might be because of cloudy metaphors and cloudier characters.