Agency Theater Collective Presents SKIN FOR SKIN Review – Abu Ghraib Revisited

He’s an American.

 Shackled, blindfolded, sleep-deprived, barraged with deafening rock music day and night, forced into physically untenable positions, and often caged—his burning desire is to know which way is South and to find water or sand for purifications so that he can properly pray.

This is Ayyub, played by Steve Silver, a modern-day Job reminding us of Abu Ghraib.

Agency Theater immerses us in Abu Ghraib realities

You may think that you need no reminder. Those visions of the hooded prisoners akin to Jesus on the crucifix are engraved in our memory, aren’t they? And we also remember that the gruesome images we were allowed to see were probably the least of it.  Sure we remember, don’t we?

We don’t remember it seems. With a quick Google you can learn that Americans’ opinions on the acceptability of so-called “enhanced interrogation” is creeping upwards. And we now have a president who advocates such—Geneva Conventions be damned.

With compelling performances, adroit direction (Michael Menendian), and a poignant script by Chicago playwright and psychologist Paul Pasulka, Skin for Skin brings back the initial feelings of shock, shame and revulsion that Abu Ghraib evoked and that the march of events tends to fade from our collective American soul.  True to Agency Theatre Collective’s mission to create theater that is “..immersive”, we are challenged to remember anew our complicity in these war crimes. For those of us in our 20’s, this also might be a first-time primer.

Effective Balance

The brilliance of this script and direction is in balancing the degree to which torture is made graphic with the psychological and moral dimensions of the story. With the help of two choreographers (Ellyzabeth Adler and Fight choreographer Scott Dare) we get just enough violence to make us squirm uncomfortably but never so much that we are compelled to emotionally shut down.

(For an inside view read “Choreographer Spotlight—Ellyzabeth Adler Talks About Skin for Skin”)

The actors give first-rate performances. For those of us who remember Steve Silver as the reactionary rabble rouser in Silk Road Rising’s Mosque Alert, there is a certain amount of psychic whiplash at first as we see him tackle this very opposite role. He plays the main character, Ayyub, an American contractor of Iraqi and Persian lineage who becomes the Job of the story.

With every uber-macho stride, Tony St. Clair is Colonel Lewis, a sociopath in uniform who spews Rumsfeld lines like they are his own. The grunts come to take the blame as they did in real life (Hannah Tarr and David Goodlowe), but it is the sadist-in-chief colonel character whom Ayyub rightfully asks for a proper beheading.   A pitch perfect performance by Robert Hardaway as Lt. Milo and a similar brief cameo by Sunny Anam as a war contractor rep Abdul Walli help to remind how greed and graft is in the mix of our war machinery. Shariba Rivers as the quasi-reluctant psychologist consultant who becomes Co-Torturer-In-Chief gives a performance that seems to surpass the script’s limited explication of how and why she caved in to assist in war crimes.

Agency Theater SKIN FOR SKIN
(L to R) Tony St. Clair as Col. Lewis and Steve Silver as Ayyub in Skin for Skin from The Agency Theatre Collective Photo: Bill Richert
Agency Theater SKIN FOR SKIN
(L to R) Shariba Rivers as Dr. O’Brien and Tony St. Clair as Col. Lewis in Skin for Skin from The Agency Theatre Collective Photo: Bill Richert

No matter what your religious belief system is, David Goodlowe’s reading of Job’s story from the bible that helps conclude the story pierces. This is a poignant performance that you will carry with you out the theater door, quietly quaking.

Skin for Skin does what theater can do best. We go beyond headlines into the human and moral dimensions of what unfolded in Abu Ghraib, or perhaps still does, in so-called black sites today. If that thought doesn’t already make you shudder today, it likely will after you see Agency Theater Collective's Skin for Skin.



Note:  An excerpt of this review appears in Theatre in Chicago.


Now through April 2.

Thursdays - Saturdays at 7:30 p.m.
Sundays at 3 p.m.



Rivendell Theatre
5779 N. Ridge Ave.




For more information and to purchase tickets, visit or call 773.680.4596.


Photos by Bill Richert 


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