‘Stage Kiss’: The Talk of the Town
By Community Reviewer Garrett Hols
Life imitates art imitates life. That's the general theme behind Sarah Ruhl's Stage Kiss, but the snappy dialogue and visceral themes could easily lose their punch if not for the proper director and a talented cast. More on all this later, but to start, Manoa Valley's production of Stage Kiss is in a word; wonderful.
First of all, the reader should note that my experience in theater is limited, and I've had no formal training or education in the field whatsoever - aside from Improv; which, to be honest, if 'performing arts' is the genus, improv and theater are two completely different species. Therefore my review of "Stage Kiss" should be taken with a grain of salt, and any offense taken should be considered wholly unintentional. Also, I have never formally reviewed a show before since it can be a difficult minefield to navigate. If you're a performer, you can possibly lose friends if an honest review is unfavorable. Similarly, you can lose credibility if a poor production is unbelievably lauded. That being said, and because a review for Stage Kiss seemed to be a safe bet, I wanted to share with the theater community my humble opinions on this particular show.
To help avoid spoilers, I'm going to refrain from providing a plot summary or descriptions of some of my favorite technical elements, and instead focus more on the themes and performances of the production. Sarah Ruhl's script is simply brilliant, weaving elements of comedy, heartache, and love both volcanic and steady. While most plays celebrate the type of bohemian, primal love bordering on lust that is certainly present in the show, Stage Kiss instead celebrates the steady type of love that's enduring and true. Both are present here, appropriately revolving around the act of the stage kiss, each of which (and there are many) are performed convincingly by the excellent troupe of actors. The dialogue is sharp, intelligent, and let me tell you; FUNNY. I don't think I have ever laughed as much while watching a play as I did this show. There were moments where I guffawed loudly and moments where I chuckled innocently to myself - mostly with the rest of the audience, but at other times all alone at the thought of a joke long passed. Stand out performances in comic timing and delivery go to Allen Cole and Adam Lefebvre. Allen's portrayal of the director is an absolute delight to watch, flamboyant and dreamy, reminiscent of Paul Lynde, he steals every scene he's in in the best of ways - supportive and not detracting. Speaking of scene stealers, Adam absolutely chews the set for every scene he's in, playing a variety of big characters, perfectly suited to his charismatic and boisterous style.
However the comedy isn't reserved to those two - oh no. The two leads, Amy Sullivan and Alan Shepard, land more than their fair share of hilarious delivery. Amy shines in her role as "She"; positively shines. She brings a mixture of vulnerability and determination for her more dramatic lines, but also provides an excellent delivery of her funnier lines as she navigates the character. I hadn't seen her in any other production before, but shared a stage with her in TAG's The Best Man where she had a relatively small part, and quickly realized that Amy is far better suited for larger, more complex roles such as this. It certainly doesn't hurt, however, and especially in a play called Stage Kiss, to have a scene partner with whom the chemistry is believable. Enter Alan, whose "He" exudes so much confidence, it gives plausibility for the turn of events required of the play. His character is a swaggering, rakish artist who I found myself quietly cheering for, despite the fact that by all social norms he'd be considered, well, an asshole. Yet, an asshole with motives both pure and despicable, calling into question the matters of morality when it comes to something as ineffable as love. So for what the character seemed to demand, Alan provided in droves.
As for the rest of the ensemble, they were absolutely wonderful, each playing different roles between acts that mirror and reflect each other in beautiful and heartbreaking ways. LeGrand Lawrence's portrayal as the husband in Act 1 is hilarious and excessive (trust me, in the best of ways) but tragic and sweet in Act 2. Lanihuli Gilbert's jaded and cynical teen Angela was intimidating and sad (again, in the best of ways) with flashes of humor that didn't seem to land as much as others (I think it's more due to her character's personality than her delivery) but definitely raised a few smiles on my face. Claire Fallon's Laurie, with her strong Midwest accent was a beautiful mix of pathetic, strong, and innocent. Out of a selfish desire for even more balance in the show, my only "complaint" of the script is that I wish those two ladies had more stage time in Act 1. Speaking of balance, typically during plays, scene changes are done quickly during complete blackout - not Stage Kiss. Director Kevin Keaveney's disdain for blackouts made for the most adorable and entertaining scene changes I've seen yet. I won't give too much away, I can say that I found the music selections to be superb and Braddoc DeCaires and Becky McGarvey, in their complete silence, were absolutely charming.
Which segues into my appreciation for the direction of the play. Full disclosure, Kevin and I are good friends, so what I have to say could be misconstrued as someone nauseatingly praising his friend, but he and I don't mince false adulation with one another - with this show, he nailed it. I was constantly guessing what was stage direction, what was an actor's organic choice that made it into the show, and what was his brainchild. After the show, and talking to the actors, they were unanimous in their response; it was all Kevin. It speaks volumes when the cast has such high praise for their director, and the result definitely shows in the work on stage. The interlude music selections, surreal piece of musical performance in Act 2 (you'll know it when you see it), the "bare" but increasingly striking set, and the lighting care of the immensely talented Janine Myers was gorgeous.
Put it all together and you have a simply wonderful show that absolutely deserves to be the talk of the town.