BWW Review: STAGE KISS is a Delightful Summer Romp at SHAW FESTIVAL
When the stage directions in a script indicate "to kiss" any good actor knows it will be "stage kiss." That is, kind of awkward at first attempt in the rehearsal hall, but hopefully with practice it becomes convincing enough to the audience without the actors actually becoming emotionally involved with each other during the run of the play. That's alot of information to digest for an action that merely calls for two people placing their lips on each other's . Briefly stated, that is the underlying premise in the Shaw Festival's delightful romp, STAGE KISS, playing at the Royal George Theatre.
The Festival has been venturing out into producing more modern plays of late, and playwright Sarah Ruhl's 2001 STAGE KISS fits into the season like a glove. Ms. Ruhl, best known for her "IN THE NEXT ROOM, or the vibrator play," has penned an often silly and farcical comedy that takes us backstage during the present day rehearsal of a tired 1930's drawing room comedy. When the two leads meet for the first time there is instant tension, as they had a torrid affair years before that ended badly. The premise is not new, ( think NOISES OFF, or THE PLAY THAT GOES WRONG) watching a rehearsal followed by a production, where the audience is already in on some of the jokes. But Ruhl finds a twist in the second act where the actors reality morphs itself into a second play, that in many ways is more dreadful than the one seen in the first act.
Fiona Byrne is the "she" in the equation and is charming from the outset, harried during auditions after a long hiatus from the stage to raise a family. The 'he" is the dapper and suave Martin Happer, who has stayed in the business, but not always in the highest caliber of productions. Shaw regular Neil Barclay is the director whose aloofness and down right lack of interest is always entertaining. Barclay's smooth delivery is spot on.
Byrne and Happer have instant chemistry and their years apart melt away as they fall in love again without much thought given to their present relationships. No, they are no Lunt and Fontanne, but the silly play they are enacting is obviously fashioned after torrid love affairs like those penned by Noel Coward. Their stage kisses turn to true love kisses, but there still is a place for comedy. When 'he" breaks his ankle, the effete understudy Kevin steps in, played hilariously by Jeff Meadows. Meadows' attempts at the infamous stage kisses are priceless, yet played with true conviction and had the audience howling.
Act II moves the action to "his" dreary apartment, with the play ended and the two now madly in love, despite her having a husband and daughter, and he a live in girlfriend. Here the script becomes a bit stagnant with comic effects toned down, but Ruhl devises a second play that for the two to rehearse that sets the tone back on it's comic path. We meet real the husband, played by the animated Sanjay Talwar, who played an onstage husband to "she" in the first act. Talwar is a master of expression and exasperation. Rong Fu is Millicent, the jilted girlfriend who is slightly oblivious to the situation and barricades herself in the bathroom to smoke a joint and try to cope, eliciting laughs every time the smoky bathroom door is opened. Sarena Parmar is the Millie, the daughter, whose manic line readings bordered on overacting and could have been toned down.
Stage director Anita Rochon paces the comedy well, finding the right amount of shtick with nods to older theatrical practices and those comedies of manners with their grandiose speech affectations. Designer Gillian Gallow has designed some lovely costumes for the actual first act play, while making the most of the small Royal George stage, suggesting backstage areas, a handsome drawing room and a filthy studio apartment.
Where STAGE KISS succeeds is in it's situational comedy and nods to farce, complete with melodramatic posturing and poorly sung parlor love songs by people who have no right to be singing. Byrne shines throughout, giving a highly polished performance full of control when needed and lack of control to elicit laughs. Happer matches her line for line, delivering a smart reading of the cad. The two realize that all of the issues that broke them up in the first place are still there 15 years later, showing that the blurry lines between a stage kiss and a true passionate kiss can be fuzzy and one really should keep their work life separate from their private life.
STAGE KISS plays at the Royal George Theatre at the Shaw Festival in Niagara on the Lake through September 1, 2018. Contact shawfest.com for more information