Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Lipstick Smear: Let Theatre Memphis' "Stage Kiss" slip you some tongue

Posted By on Wed, Oct 18, 2017 at 3:04 PM

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I've got to admit, I don't  enjoy watching long sex scenes in any medium unless the coitus reveals something crucial about the characters and their relationship. I'm not opposed to skin or sin, mind you. It's the narrative interruption. We all understand the ins and outs of the ins and outs and, absent some real surprises, we know how this particular act ends. Outside the realm of pure titillation (and sometimes in it!) it's a greater gift to be economical with the touchin and the squeezin' and let vivid imaginations do the dirty work for you. Or fast-forward through the sloppy parts and, in the words of the poet, show us the money. I mention all of this because, even though the topic's smooching not sex, it was fun (for me) to hear my feelings on this subject debated so clearly inside Stage Kiss, a nifty little treasure-box of a play that depends on a lot of physical contact. Because, while I do enjoy the resolution a kiss might bring — or the chaos it can presage or set loose — there's nothing more redundant than watching other people mug down. On the other hand, redundancy is the kind of quality Playwright Sarah Ruhl knows how to weaponize, and transform into an epic, existential gag.

Stage Kiss at Theatre Memphis is a rare and special thing — A RomCom that's smart, disarmingly hilarious, and not just a saggy, cliche bag of warmed over kissy-boo-hoo. It's got a solid cast and fun design all around. Still, I've got to imagine this  play's probably a tough sell, even to friendly audiences who own Sleepless in Seattle on VHS, laser disc, DVD, Blu Ray and iTunes. The "backstage comedy" element was played out back when songwriters were innocently rhyming June and moon. All one sentence social media-friendly summaries make Stage Kiss sound like the most dreadful thing ever (or something you might accidentally hate-watch on the Hallmark channel) —  "Two contemporary actors who are also former lovers fall in love when they are cast opposite one another in a failed romantic melodrama from the 1930's."

Seriously, who would elect to go see that? You should. 
Ruhl's a deserving MacArthur Genius grant winner who's gone surreal with Dead Man's Cell Phone, and gotten down & dirty with the scandalous vibrator play In the Next Room. On the surface Stage Kiss might look like a departure from edgier work, but it's a classic Ruhl, and a gem for a number of reasons that I can't fully articulate for fear of spoiling the fun. Instead I'll suggest that folks who liked the interplay of stage life, real life, and the life of the mind in the movie Birdman will also enjoy Stage Kiss, which has a similar, if slightly less hallucinatory sensibility. Fans of tight character and ensemble acting will also enjoy the work being done here by Tracie Hansom and John Moore as the former lovers, Stuart Turner as their excitable director and Chase Ring as the understudy with Gordon Ginsburg, Lena Wallace Black, and Laurel Galaty in a variety of supporting roles.

Stage Kiss uses the lost-love-regained trope to explore different kinds of loving, trusting relationships attendant incompetency, psychopathy etc. Hansom, as the unnamed She, is married with a precocious, deeply betrayed teenage daughter right out of central casting. Moore's He is in a "serious" relationship with a woman he doesn't seem to know very well. He's not Peter Pan incarnate but, having never settled down, his loft might pass for an upscale dorm room. An organic, but highly artificial rekindling of He and She's relationship opens up like a farce, and the plays within the play afford ample opportunities for calculated overacting and singing that's supposed to be terrible whether the audience knows it or not.

Ruhl's  got a Stoppardian knack for changing her stories — and the meaning of her stories — midstream by altering audience perspective. Stage Kiss begins with a round of auditions in the empty theater. Sets accumulate like a lifetime's worth of baggage and are summarily disposed of or repurposed. What appears to be from one perspective changes with the scenery — when the (not very) hot new stage couple move on from romantic melodrama to ridiculous hardscrabble grit.



Even wise, loving platitudes from the play's closing chapter look like part of an epic gas-lighting when the applause fades, and you emerge from the theater into a less augmented reality.

Tony Isbell's been on a roll as a director. Quark Theatre's under-attended production of Years to the Day was an unfussy, superbly acted look at connectivity without community. Isbell's given Stage Kiss the gift of trust and not messing it up by messing with it. He simply lets it all be the sincere romantic comedy it needs to be in order to be a whole lot more.

Seeing Stage Kiss on Theatre Memphis' main stage was nice, but it made me miss the days when the Evergreen theatre was Circuit Playhouse. Although there should be plenty of room for non-musicals on our main stages, I wanted to see this  kiss-intimate comedy in a kiss-intimate house of just about that size and shape. It's not that the laughs don't land or that play loses something because it's being performed in a big room —  it's never as snuggly, or as prickly as it might be in somewhat tighter quarters.

That's really all I have to say about that, though I feel the need to offer some counterintuitive advice to producing bodies: If audiences are leaving your show at intermission because (you think) they think the play is over, let them go on in happy ignorance. Maybe they'll find out and come back. Or perhaps, instead of explaining how some people misunderstand the show, the person delivering the curtain speech could stress the ability to buy season tickets at INTERMISSION, before THE SECOND ACT. Setting your audience up for confusion places it outside the world of the play before the play has a chance to pull folks in. It changes how chunks of your audience will experience the story, turning whatever script you're producing  into a meta-mystery — a whodunnit of sorts. Who got fooled? Were they stupid? Was the show not clear? Maybe they just didn't like it? And so on.

I'm not theorizing here having experienced this before. Last week a decidedly unimpressed couple behind me spoke their theories about act one aloud creating a gravely comic, almost Beckett-like play within the play within the play. Don't misunderstand, as a critic I probably love Statler & Waldorf more than the average fan, but this intrusion was unwelcome — and unfair to a couple who, through only some fault of their own, were clearly watching a completely different play. 

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