Say this for “Skin Deep Sea,” Stanton Wood’s fanciful play whose title sounds like a before-and-after answer on “Wheel of Fortune”: It is imaginative, often engaging and evocatively designed by Lisa Conley (sets, costumes and props), even if this rococo fairy tale has some emotional entanglements that remove it from the reality of steampunk fantasy and put it into the orbit of reality TV.
In the play, which opened over the weekend in Alan Berks’ good-looking production for Workhaus Collective at the Playwrights’ Center, a bodyguard played by Tony Sarnicki, is involved with a spitfire mother and both of her daughters (though not all at the same time). And all three women have powers of intellect, insight and magic (although one wonders about discernment).
“Skin Deep Sea” revolves around Penelope (the potent Adrienne Sweeney), a 19th-century robber baron in competition with Carnegie and Rockefeller. The other leading industrialists want her dead. She just wants to prosper, and to get back at them, if she can. Penelope travels to Japan to chill out, but is attacked by ninjas hired by her enemies. After a Westerner named Reed (Sarnicki) dispatches them, Penelope hires him as her bodyguard.
Meanwhile, Penelope’s daughter Felicity (Emily Dussault), who has magical skills, has begun the process of transforming her half-sister Sorrow (Chloe Armao) into a fish. The play opens, in fact, with Felicity going to the deck of the airship of Capt. Wilson (Sam Landman), a peg-legged privateer, and tasking him with dropping a barrel into the sea. The barrel contains Sorrow, who will be more at home in the salty depths.
The locales in “Skin Deep” include the bottom of the ocean and the Pennsylvania river abode of a witch (Jane Froiland) who is consulted by two of the women.
The narrative lines are clear enough in this metaphor-suffused show that gets a lift and a kick from its cast.
Director Berks elicits a compelling performance from Sweeney, who invests Penelope with a gravitas that is occasionally leavened by humor. Dussault and Armao play their roles as if sides of the same coin: Dussault’s Felicity is light and intense; Armao’s Sorrow is subdued and has the air of someone whose smiles are tempered by pain. Both are tender.
Sarnicki is energetic, adding dimension to a supporting, one-note role that is the same regardless of which partner he is romancing. Froiland brings a feral ferocity to the witch, while Landman makes the most of his snide pirate.
If there is a general complaint about “Skin Deep,” it is that it loses some steam as fantasy. Instead of being wild and out there, it peters out into a conventional work as playwright Wood ties up loose ends. Still, it’s a pretty neat show.