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.

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