11 February 2020

Aiding a fantasy: Notes on 'Stage Kiss'

Playwright Sarah Ruhl sneaks a mini commentary on theater's superiority over film somewhere into her 2014 comedy, Stage Kiss. Lead male character, He posits that onstage kissing signifies "an idea of beauty completing itself". We watch the act as an aid towards a consummate image in our heads, all along conscious of the other minds around us. That's why, according to him, anything more than a kiss and anything less than good-looking people doing it is repulsive. Whereas in film we may relish watching the act itself in private. "Theater is less like masturbation," concludes He.

He is, of course, speaking of an ideal as well, of theater's potential to be a self-aware, because society-aware art form. There is no hiding in a play, no pauses. An audience's immediate response is checked against fellow audiences. Continuous with the show on hand is an implicit, quiet dialogue among viewers and performers.

Missy Maramara and Tarek El Tayech are She and He in Repertory Philippines' production of Stage Kiss. (Press photo)

In Stage Kiss — currently having its local run with Repertory Philippines under the direction of Carlos Siguion-Reyna — the dialogue homes in on the melding of fantasy and reality; while the entire production behaves like an experiment in how much we can tolerate in our lives, including our choice of entertainment.

At its center is rusty actor She (Missy Maramara), who finds herself reunited with ex-lover He (Tarek El Tayech) when the two are cast as the romantic pair in The Last Kiss, a cliché-ridden 1930's drama. Despite being married with a teenage daughter, She falls in love again with He, no thanks to the nature of her job.

Heavily pronounced in the beginning are the discomforts of the said job: having to kiss an ex, kiss another actor with gross mannerisms, kiss a stranger — in short kissing someone you'd rather not, or just too much fucking kissing. Meanwhile on the other side of the proscenium are the audience members who have to witness — and depending on their humor, endure or enjoy — all this.

As Stage Kiss progresses, She and He confuse their individual selves with their make-believe personas. So do the audience. In Act II, they get another gig as a couple in I Loved You Before I Killed You, or: Blurry. This time, She takes on the role of a whore and He, a brute. Somehow, She has also turned from charming to tacky, and He from charming to scary over intermission.

Stage Kiss by Sarah Ruhl runs until March 1 at Onstage – Greenbelt, Makati. (Press photo)

Getting caught up in these blurred lines appears intentional, but for us to appreciate the conundrum, we need a clear picture of the lines. Except for a brief, desperate monologue by She regarding her past with He, the play proceeds like fiction through and through. There isn't enough of She and He's reality; something that shows that they are human. Who are they when they aren't actors in rehearsal anymore?

Though richly layered in themes, Stage Kiss is emotionally thin. There is a tenderness that wants to but can't quite break through the gags. And while the bulk of the fun rests on the main characters' erratic, chameleon-like romance, the play privileges stability, symbolized by Harrison (Robbie Guevara), the banker husband of She.

During a twisted denouement we learn that the husband orchestrated his wife and her lover's break-up by financing I Loved You Before I Killed You and pulling strings to have She and He hired as leads. Knowing how highly impressionable the two are, they are bound to end up like their characters — mad. Well done to the banker for making his own fantasy a reality.

Stage Kiss doesn't exactly answer that often-asked question about kissing for a job: How does it feel? Rather it lays bare the dreariness of actions done out of duty instead of desire. The show also foregrounds the potency of imagination, the directions it might go into if left uncontrolled, and where it might take us with discipline. And in theater, imagination is a shared power. It is an ideal space to pose hard questions and tackle delicate subjects. Because here the act of creation is urgent and communal; we are forced to look at each other's face; we think with others even as we think for ourselves. You are not a voyeur here.

04 February 2020

Je n'en sais rien

Es-tu brune ou blonde ?
Sont-ils noirs ou bleus,
Tes yeux ?
Je n'en sais rien, mais j'aime leur clarté profonde,
Mais j'adore le désordre de tes cheveux.

Es-tu douce ou dure ?
Est-il sensible ou moqueur,
Ton cœur ?
Je n'en sais rien, mais je rends grâce à la nature
D'avoir fait de ton cœur mon maître et mon vainqueur.

Fidèle, infidèle ?
Qu'est-ce que ça fait.
Au fait ?
Puisque, toujours disposé à couronner mon zèle
Ta beauté sert de gage à mon plus cher souhait.

—Paul Verlaine

I have an eight-hundred-fifty-seven-day streak on Duolingo and I guess it's paying off. While scrolling through Instagram, I came across this Paul Verlaine poem and was somewhere between kilig and amazed that I actually understood it — eighty percent of, more or less.

Three beautiful phrases I've picked up from the post:

Mais j'adore le désordre de tes cheveux. "But I love the disorder of your hair." (My translation, hah!) Has to be my favorite line.

Que l'on se dise sincèrement les choses, sans les retenir... "That we say things to each other sincerely, without holding back." (Still my translation, double hah!) Part of the commentary from the French journalist who posted the poem. She's reminding me of my lifelong desire to gift people with words that are kind and true.

Je n'en sais rien. I would read this as "I know nothing of that". But taken in context, the refrain comes after a series of related questions. For example: "Are you brunette or blonde? / Are they black or blue, / Your eyes?" To which the poet answers, Je n'en sais rien, and "I know nothing of that" doesn't quite fit. As the sentiment is more of "I have no idea" or "I can't tell" or a resigned yet forceful, "I don't know".

Somewhere in the past I've accused Stephen Mitchell of ruining Rilke for me. While everyone was celebrating his poems — mostly Mitchell's translations — I was underwhelmed. Until I found this Randall Jarrell translation — then woah, Rilke is a master! (Search for Mitchell's version and be the judge.)

Still way back in the past, I thought of learning Japanese to make sense of haikus, because surely the English translations we study in school aren't doing the form justice. Or at least that's my impression. But I've given up on my Japanese — I need to learn a whole new writing system! Anyway, I'm happy with my progress in French. The rest of the day shall be spent close-reading Verlaine.

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