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Monday, December 14, 2015

Some Enchanted Evening: Sarah Ruhl’s Stage Kiss

Posted By on Mon, Dec 14, 2015 at 8:00 AM

click to enlarge She (Carrie Paff) and He (Gabriel Marin) rekindle an old relationship. - JESSICA PALOPOLI
  • Jessica Palopoli
  • She (Carrie Paff) and He (Gabriel Marin) rekindle an old relationship.

As you walk into the theater to find your seat before Stage Kiss begins, the sound system is playing popular songs from the 1930s. Bing Crosby croons out a duet with some forgotten chanteuse. On another track, the sound of jazz-inflected muffled horns prepares us for the arrival of a bedroom farce. The sonic atmosphere is a smash-up of genres: Henry & June meets Jeeves and Wooster. Nostalgia may be on order for what’s about to come but it’s a wry, knowing and affectionate glance at the past. Playwright Sarah Ruhl sets out to reconstruct a romance between two actors who were once lovers. In doing so, she deconstructs the artifice of strangers kissing on a stage in front of an audience.

click to enlarge The cast of Stage Kiss takes a bow after opening night of ‘The Last Kiss’. - JESSICA PALOPOLI
  • Jessica Palopoli
  • The cast of Stage Kiss takes a bow after opening night of ‘The Last Kiss’.

She and He are the paramours. They’re listed, neutrally, as such in the dramatis personæ. After a long period of estrangement, they’ve both been cast in the same play: The Last Kiss, a costume melodrama that’s deliberately overwritten. In the play within a play, She and He are also reunited lovers. And the mirroring of selves, past and present, fictional and real, multiplies. Ruhl, effortlessly holding all the strings, asks the question, What if you were required to kiss that lost love of yours, the one you fantasize about during a dull patch in your life and marriage? Would the spark be rekindled in the land of playacting and pretend? 

click to enlarge She (Carrie Paff) and He (Gabriel Marin), are former lovers, cast in a play about former lovers. - JESSICA PALOPOLI
  • Jessica Palopoli
  • She (Carrie Paff) and He (Gabriel Marin), are former lovers, cast in a play about former lovers.

Here’s where the author’s technique of creating a play within a play is particularly effective. Ruhl distracts the audience from the original artifice, distancing us from the fact that we’re in a theater at the San Francisco Playhouse. By conjuring up ridiculous dialogue for the rehearsal scenes in The Last Kiss, the story around and outside of it becomes that much more believable. Ruhl’s imagination honors the daydream of living out an alternate life with a different partner, and then cleverly dismantles the idea to our delight and chagrin.

None of this could be conveyed, however, without a vivid, witty actress at the center of the drama. She appears in every scene: as an actress returning to her profession; as an actress in two dissimilar plays; as a wife, a mother and a lover. As She, Carrie Paff performs all of these roles with a passionate vulnerability, and, with terrific comic timing to boot. Her voice shares some of the same tonal qualities as Cate Blanchett’s, and she appears to be as much of a chameleon as that Australian actress. Paff answers Ruhl’s question for us. A kiss means nothing without the romantic fantasy that accompanies it. By delivering the ache that comes with desire, Stage Kiss belongs entirely to She, to her, to Ms. Paff.

Stage Kiss, through Jan. 9 at the San Francisco Playhouse, 450 Post Street, 415-677-9596.

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