Review: STAGE KISS at the Shaw Festival

by Lynn on May 20, 2018

in The Passionate Playgoer

At the Royal George Theatre, Shaw Festival, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont.

Written by Sarah Ruhl

Directed by Anita Rochon

Designed by Gillian Gallow

Lighting by Louise Guinand

Original music and sound by Thomas Ryder Payne

Cast: Neil Barkclay

Fiona Byrne

Rong Fu

Martin Happer

Jeff Meadows

Sarena Parmar

Sanjay Talwar

Two fine performances by Fiona Byrne and Martin Happer, but the play and the rest of the production are a disappointment.

The Story. Stage Kiss was written by American playwright, Sarah Ruhl in 2011.

It’s about two characters known only as She and He. She comes for an audition for a play about a pair of lovers. She hasn’t been working for a long time because She’s been busy with married life and motherhood. (She and her husband have a daughter who is now 15 years old. But she gets the job. When She reports for rehearsals, raring to go She learns that He has been cast as her lover in the play.  Years before She and He had been lovers in real life but it ended and we sense not too amicably.  She seems to have left without an explanation.

He has continued to work as an actor since then. He is now and in a relationship with a teacher.  So for much of the first Act they rehash old wounds and hurts, and bicker but then they have to rehearse all that kissing. But you know what happens when the play is about lovers and there is a lot of kissing to rehearse. Let the complications begin.

The Production. I think Stage Kiss is one of Sarah Ruhl’s weaker plays and this production doesn’t make up for it. Fiona Byrne as She and Martin Happer as He are the bright lights of the production, but the uneven acting of the cast and Anita Rochon’s unhelpful direction don’t help to elevate this disappointment of a production.

At first Fiona Byrne plays She as flighty with anxiety for coming in late for her audition and trying to hide it and being charming all the same. But when she realizes that He, her  former lover has also been cast, She’s of course unsettled but in control.

As He, Martin Happer is boyish, very confident, he knows the drill about acting and has a lot of background. But he’s unsettled too about She. The old wounds become tender and sore. Both Fiona Byrne and Martin Happer have a lovely chemistry. They know each other’s skin and that works a treat. There’s swagger and yet moments when you can see one or the other is wounded. These two know their way around subtlety and nuance and they can temper and vary a performance.

I found the acting of the rest of the cast to be generally problematic.  Some bellow their lines without variation. Some play for laughs that aren’t earned.

Director Anita Rochon doesn’t help in keeping a strong hand on performances.  For example, Jeff Meadows is a wonderful actor who plays Kevin, a member of the production they are rehearsing. He is directed to be so broad in some scenes that I just didn’t believe the performance. I know this man’s work. He’s better than this seemingly one noted performance.

 Comment.  Sarah Ruhl is a smart writer who delves deeply into questions about being human and sexuality, (in In the Next Room or the Vibrator Play), having a sense of place and point in The Clean House, mixing it up with history in Passion Play and  parenting and sacrifice in The Oldest Boy. But Stage Kiss is one of Sarah Ruhl’s weaker plays.  You can see what’s coming a mile off, so there are really no spoilers or surprises.

In Act I we have a situation that we can see developing in the way it does way before it’s resolved. In Act II we have a resolution that we’ve seen in other plays over the years. And  Act II just seemed so padded to me and that is startling for such an accomplished writer.

So Stage Kiss is a disappointment.

The Shaw Festival presents.

Opened: May 9, 2018.

Closes:  Sept. 1, 2018.

Running Time: 2 hours, 20 minutes.

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1 BRIAN STEIN May 28, 2018 at 4:08 pm

After reading your fellow critic’s review of this production (J. Kelly), three of us thought it might be this year’s answer to Middletown. Then the other shoe dropped and my friends cooled very quickly. He seems really out of step at times and this seems to be one of those times.