Directed by Jessica Thebus
At the Goodman Theatre, Chicago
Blowing Kisses at this Production
Once upon a time, there lived a very strict editor who limited reviewers to three exclamation points, claiming that no play ever deserved more! Fortunately, Chicagocritic.com places no such restrictions because the world premiere of Sarah Ruhl’s Stage Kiss merits a whole wall of punctuation following such words as Charming! Hilarious! Witty! Provocative! Insightful! And that’s just a conservative estimate.
From the moment the comedy opens, with a nervous young lady auditioning for an outrageous play, the audience is captivated. Jenny Bacon is delicious as “She,” trying desperately to come to terms with voice, gestures, and delivery as she displays her wares before Director (Ross Lehman). Her body language is splendid – awkward, appealing and winsome. At her request, Director straightforwardly summarizes a bizarre plot concerning a woman with one month to live reuniting with her old flame. The third person on stage is quite young — blond, boyish Kevin (Jeffrey Carlson). The script calls for kisses and kisses and more kisses. Is Kevin the old flame—he hardly seems old or experienced enough — or is he or the first of the many false leads aimed at the audience?
Building on the wonderful world of a play within a play, Stage Kiss takes the audience behind the scenes with as much surprise and fun as Noises Off. There are the actors (two of whom were lovers 20 years ago), there are the characters they play (two of whom were lovers 20 years ago), and then – in additional layers — there is the impact of the role on the one who must perform it. If ever there were an explanation for why stars often spend their lives mixing and matching mates it lies in the titillating temptation of passionate role-play. Kissing eight times a performance, nine performances a week, for a number of weeks, has its impact on the psyche. As “She” notes, “You either have to kiss a stranger and make it look like you know him, or you have to kiss someone you know and make him look like a stranger.” What a conundrum.
What is reality? What illusion? What constitutes identity? Layer after layer is peeled away. In the first act, relationships both on and off stage kindle and rekindle with handsome, philandering “He” played with great verve by Mark L. Montgomery, and both the real and stage husbands handled with Scott Jaeck’s consummate skill. When one thinks the play couldn’t get more inventive, the leads are cast in one more drama. Now there are two plays within the play (including the framework, actually three). Ruhl is a master of dramatic structure in this triple-whammy, much like a three ring circus moving the audience’s attention from one exciting spotlight to another.
Throughout, clever dialogue is laced with humor. “He” lives in Sweden “where the trees are larger than the buildings. “She” prefers a world where the buildings are larger than the trees.” In addition, it is always revelatory to see the same dialogue repeated with different timing and innuendo, and comic expectation is built after a discussion of whether or not people actually use false departures in the real world – stomping off, then turning back for a departing shot. Throughout, the verbal and physical timing are superb with Kudos to Director Jessica Thebus, who has a history of working with Ruhl -– a splendid team.
The ensemble works together with wonderful skill and aplomb. Lehman, as Director, unobtrusively takes stage notes to which he never makes reference; Carlson has fun with his roles as a butler, doctor and pimp, and the fine cast is rounded out by Erica Elam, and Sarah Totan-Mee playing multiple roles that include She’s daughter, He’s current girlfriend, and a parlor maid.
While this is the first play I’ve seen by Ruhl, it certainly will not be the last.
Will Fink’s Review of Stage Kiss
Sometimes a piece of theatre hits close to home and makes for an odd viewing experience. Perhaps you’ve recently killed your wife in a jealous rage; or you’ve started sleeping with your elderly housekeeper for cheap rent. Or perhaps you’ve recently carried on a brief but torrid love affair with someone you rather shouldn’t. If the last pertains to you, you’re in for a bizarre mirror on stage. And a very good one. Sarah Ruhl has written a wholly enjoyable if somewhat predictable play with Stage Kiss. It is definitely written for the people on stage, first and foremost: a play about actors dealing with difficult and hilarious circumstances, that allows them to be utterly ridiculous and embrace the far-out reaches of the character acting spectrum. That said, it’s also for the people watching. It’s a well-written piece, that characteristically shows Ruhl’s love of language, and of twisting words and meanings. The whole concept is an examination of something normal, from a slightly askew perspective. A stage kiss, after all, is actors kissing someone they may not know that well in a totally professional, nonsexual manner; and yet it’s supposed to look sexual to the audience. Well, what happens if the people on stage start to mean it?
The story is a bit predictable – it ends just how you think it would – but that’s okay. It’s comforting. And the journey is very fun. It also proves that Sarah Ruhl is a tempered romantic: True Love does, after all, prevail in the end; but romance – deep, pure romance – makes an extended showing, and ultimately fails. And in fact we never learn the two main characters names: they are only “He” and “She” in the script, which subtly universalizes them. To the benefit of the play, Mark L. Montgomery and Jenny Bacon are stand-outs in the roles. Indeed, every actor (many of whom inhabit more than one role in the piece, most split between the first and second acts) is fantastic, with Jeffrey Carlson and Erica Elam also giving particularly impressive performances.
This is a play that is certainly worth seeing. And the Goodman flexes its technical muscles, with several impressive scene changes, and beautiful sets, lighting, costumes, and props. It may have been written first and foremost for those people on stage, but their joy in the material is so infectious, and the material so enjoyable, it is difficult to be dour during this play.
For full show information, go to the Stage Kiss page at Theatre in Chicago.
Goodman’s Albert Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn, tickets are $25-$78, run Tuesdays and Wednesdays at 7:30 p.m., Thursdays at 2 and 7:30 p.m., Fridays at 8p.m., Saturdays at 2 and 8 p.m., Sundays at 2 and 7:30 p.m. Call 312-443-3811 or visit goodmantheatre.org Run time 2 hours and 10 minutes, through June 5, 2011