Circa Theatre in Wellington, New Zealand, has staged a terrific production of Sarah Ruhl’s Stage Kiss.
Taking a page out of the Venus in Fur playbook, Sarah Ruhl’s Stage Kiss begins with an awkward audition. As the play unfolds, the lives of the actors and their characters in the play-within-a-play start to bleed into each other. Where Venus in Fur was a psycho-sexual exploration, Stage Kiss is a comedy about the artifice of the theatre and the performative nature of real life.
She (Danielle Mason) is auditioning for a revival of an absurd 1930s comedy of manners — a flop in its day — for a director (Bruce Philips) who refuses to direct, reading with a talentless actor, Kevin (Simon Leary), incapable of pretending to be someone else. Within seconds of walking into the audition, she finds herself repeatedly smooching Kevin, because the script requires it.
That they have to perform this intimate act casually when in any other circumstances it would be an uncomfortable breach of boundaries makes for many laughs. Ruhl exaggerates the situation by inventing a play which requires multiple smooches in this one scene — and then has the director instruct She and Kevin to signal the kisses during rehearsal with their hands instead of actually performing them.
If kissing someone you don’t know is an awkward part of an actor’s job, kissing someone you do know on stage while pretending you don’t know them is even more so. On the first day of rehearsals, She finds herself face-to-face with her ex-lover He (Peter Daubé), the one that got away.
He plays her extramarital lover in the play. Without the safety net of the company watching them perform, they can barely exchange civil words. But when rehearsing, they’re in a fugue state: able to kiss each other, passionately even, but with no repercussions. it doesn’t matter that She is married because it’s not entirely “real”. Even though it’s still their lips doing the kissing, they’re performing.
Working with a simple set of little more than a couch — or divan — and a couple of chairs in a smallish space in Wellington’s Circa Theatre, director Ross Jolly brings the text vividly to life. The backstage world feels as real as the stage, the rehearsal room, and the bachelor apartment where He lives. John Hodgkins’ set design and Sheila Horton’s costume design deliberately blur the lines between the decor and garments in the play-within-the-play and the “real” lives of the performers — borrowing from each other.
But it’s the terrific cast with impeccable comic timing, slipping easily into regional American accents, that sell the show and make this a thoroughly enjoyable evening. Danielle Mason as She is a standout, carefully balancing the vulnerability, coolness, and maturity behind the woman who recaptures her twenty-year-old self — for better and for worse — when she interacts with He.
Simon Leary is perfect as the flamboyant Kevin who never quite fits into the plays-within-the-play, and finds every laugh in the process. And Daubé finds just the right sexual chemistry with Mason without ever overtaking her or quite matching her, making their courtship believable as something with a strong pull that maybe should have been left in the past.