by John Stoltenberg
Plays about playmaking have an enduring appeal. Think Noises Off, Six Characters in Search of an Author. Shows about shows on the musical stage have indelible charm. Think Chorus Line, Kiss Me Kate. Metatheatricality can even inspire great moviemaking. Remember how Birdman reinvented cinematic narrative?
This sort of stuff is Sarah Ruhl’s forte. Her script for Passion Play—directed by Michael Dove last season at Forum Theatre—looked at actors’ retelling of a crucifixion story from inside and out, on stage and off, in three different eras, in language worldly and otherworldly, and became a masterpiece of theater’s capacity to engage us in meaning as multiplicity.
This sort of stuff is also Aaron Posner’s métier. His Life Sucks (Or the Present Ridiculous)—the reworking of Chekhov he wrote and directed last season for Theater J—looked at actors in and out of character, in and out of funks, and as they wrestled with the elusive meaning of life on a stage set that was sometimes a placeholder and sometimes meant to be a real place, the play became a masterly metaphor for human existence itself.
Individually Ruhl and Posner do metatheatricality like nobody’s business. Round House Theater Producing Artistic Director Ryan Rilette has brilliantly teamed them on Ruhl’s comedy Stage Kiss. The script is super clever; Posner’s direction is peerless. And the exuberant upshot is not only a gut-busting laugh a minute but also a mind-blowing insight into love and sex.
Stage Kiss as its title suggests turns on theatrical depiction of kissing. The fact it focuses on kissing as a public act, as something actors do in full view of an audience, becomes a prompt for us to wonder, along with the characters, about kissing in private as an interpersonal act when no one is watching:
Is it live or is it Memorex? Is it real or is it mimesis?
There’s an ongoing play-within-the-play in Stage Kiss, and the characters are mostly actors. The main two are credited in the program as She (Dawn Ursula) and He (Gregory Wooddell). Years ago She and He had a passionate affair; they have since gone their separate ways. She married and has a teenage daughter; He has a fiancé. They haven’t seen each other for more than a decade. Now, awkwardly, they are cast by a stage director (Craig Wallace) in the same 1930s-era play as two characters who have a red-hot adulterous affair. Abruptly their real-life romance resumes, torridly, with comic complications aplenty: She has a real-life husband (Todd Scofield) and daughter (Tyasia Velines); He has a real-life girlfriend (Rachel Zampelli). In their onstage roles She and He are called upon to kiss, a lot, and their lusty lip-locking carries over offstage into their ostensibly authentic lives.
At one point She asks He, apropos a particularly ostentatious osculation: “Did it make you feel like an actor kissing an actor or did it make you feel like a person kissing a person?” That is the play’s big connundrum, one that doesn’t go away afterward, and one that to my knowledge is wholly original to this work.
Granted, Stage Kiss is a knockout comedy. Some of the punch lines and sight gags had me doubling over. There were times I could not keep from chuckling even as the show played on. Ruhl plus Posner equals hilarity squared. The fantastic cast also includes Michael Glenn, Rachel Zampelli, Tom Truss, and David Mavricos. Kelsey Hunt perfectly conveys the split between street wear and costume. Sound Designer/Composer James Bigbee Garver’s interscene music tracks instantly shift the show between the 1930s and now. Set Designer Tony Cisek and Lighting Designer Andrew R. Cissna have created scenic effects that serve the metatheatrical storytelling with jaw-dropping aptness. The production is spectacular in every respect.
But though Stage Kiss is nonstop hilarious, it’s no fluffy souffle that leaves you hungry for substance later. It didn’t hit me till after, but this sensational show is concocted around a surprisingly serious thought provocation:
Stage Kiss questions kissing the way Waiting for Godot interrogates god.