Saturday, December 5, 2015

"Stage Kiss"

Stage Kiss
Sarah Ruhl

Gabriel Marin as He & Carrie Paff as She
Harry Potter snogs; teens suck face; others peck, smack, make out, or tongue wrestle.  In Sarah Ruhl’s hilarious Stage Kiss, the meeting of two sets of lips and the co-tangling of tongues becomes the central and most-repeated action of the play, from quick brush-by’s to seriously long encounters.  As actors playing actors rehearse and perform plays within the play, the boundaries between what is real and what is acted fade totally away as called-for kisses take on lives of their own.   Inimitably directed by Susi Damilano, San Francisco Playhouse presents a stellar cast in a totally fun play where the real life portrayed is no less ridiculous and often just as bizarre as the silly, poorly written plays its actors find themselves as cast members.

After years away from acting (save one anti-depressant commercial), an unnamed She shows up for an audition and immediately starts manically directing her own tryout.  From the moment she steps into the stage lights, Carrie Paff both exudes sensuality and elicits laughter as she slinks into a chair with over-done grace and with shapely leg extended into the air, ever so poised for full effect.  What She does not yet realize is that her co-starring He in the play-to-be is a long-ago ex, played by an equally hilarious and sexy Gabriel Marin, and that their script will call for a number of kisses that must be rehearsed innumerable times in the days and weeks to come.  Initial shock of their seeing each other once they arrive at the first rehearsal quickly leads to side snipes muttered between the rehearsal’s lines.  However, the required practice of repeated kissing scenes begins to spark embers that have long lain smoldering, kept alive in their individual, X-rated dreams about each other and their long ago, lurid love affair.  

She (Carrie Paff) on He (Gabriel Marin)
That She is married and has a teenage daughter, that He is about to move in with a kindergarten teacher girlfriend, and that the play they are rehearsing is possibly the worst script either has ever read matter little as the two become so caught up in their own renewed attraction that even they seem to be confused what is script and what is reality.  So befuddled do they become that their initial quickies become extended life scenes where overly dramatic moves, stage voices, and even costumes are now the everyday way they live in his dumpy apartment.  Mr. Marin and Ms. Paff give award-worthy performances as a couple with palpable magnetism drawing them deliciously together – all evident by their tensed muscles, locked eyes, and melted-together bodies --  and all done with the flamboyant flairs of two-bit actors trying much too hard to be perfect in their own play within the play of their lives.

With mostly “uhhhhs” and “hmmms” along with a few “whatever feels right ... just trust your instincts,” Mark Anderson Phillips cocks his head of ruffled hair, pulls up his legs and high-top tennis shoes into a crumpled position, and rather blandly and very mildly oversees He and She as their Director.  His befuddled looks and general passivity are periodically interrupted by comically jumping into the middle of a scene (and maybe even the bed) with beated-brow intensity to mold the actors into some obscure way he wants them to act.  How much he is an act himself becomes evermore unclear as the play progresses.  As he so often does on local stages, Mr. Phillips brings a unique and slightly twisted interpretation to his character that so totally works for the play’s overall hilarity.

One of several parts Allen Darby so aptly portrays is Kevin, a minor player within the play’s two plays and the understudy of He in the first play within our play.  When he steps in to aid She’s initial audition (only after popping Altoids and lotioning his hands), his jerky, awkward attempts to land a kiss are made all the more funny by a mouth that looks like a guppie gasping for air.  Sitting to the side during He’s and She’s scene rehearsals, he furiously knits a scarf with tightly crossed legs.  Asked to step in to be a kissing partner with the Director during one demonstration osculation, his happy gay self practically swoons.  His other parts (pimp, doctor, and butler) all have their frivolous moments as Mr. Darby does all he can to prove that he is the overall star of our evening.
The Cast of "Stage Kiss"
Taylor Iman Jones is a twenty-something support actress Millie, usually in Act One looking bored on her IPhone in the background, who bemoans always being chosen for the teenage part.  In Act Two, with Sarah Ruhl’s tongue clearly in her cheek, she plays the “real” teenage daughter, Angela, of She and does so with wonderful impetuosity, a mouth full of four-letter words, and a propensity to hog the spotlight when she can, spouting off about her latest intense, teenage opinions and observations.  Millie DeBenedit is in one act She’s high-society, ditsy friend, Millicent, and in the second, the straight-off-the-Iowa-farm girlfriend of He who draws audience chuckles as she deals with discovering He and She co-mingled in bed by spouting about God and souls, running to the bathroom for a calming toke, and dealing with resulting munchies with a mammoth peanut butter and jelly sandwich.  Rounding out this cast of stock characters (in both the real life and in the staged plays) is the cuckolded Husband, the ever-calm Michael Gene Sullivan who takes the few lines Ms. Ruhl affords his two characters and makes hay while the sun shines as the loyal, patricianly distant, and not-to-be-deterred hubby.

Besides the impeccable sense of comedic timing, stops, and re-starts that Susi Damilano conjures up as Director, the scene changes are themselves quite entertaining with interactions occurring in the shadows as sets are replaced (with even the stagehands getting into the act).  As is often the case as SF Playhouse, Bill English, along with Jacquelyn Scott, has his hands in the creation of a clever set that alternates from bare-stage rehearsal space to play within the play scenes to He’s apartment (which later itself becomes a play’s set in the ever-muddying of reality versus theatre that Ruhl has devised).  Brooke Jennings has contributed costumes that enhance each quirky personality to a ‘t,’ costumes that themselves raise questions about what is real and what is acted within the course of Stage Kiss.

Sarah Ruhl has called upon a familiar-enough ploy famously used by Shakespeare up through modern stage history and has taken it just a bit deeper and darker while retaining and enhancing the humor of a play within a play.  In the end, we begin to wonder is actual life any better (or worse) than the worst script imaginable?  Are we all acting on our own stages as genuine people with unique personalities, or are we really just stock characters in some grand theatrical joke?  San Francisco Playhouse, a fine cast, and a brilliant script full of innocent (not) stage kisses raise these and other interesting questions while keeping us all in stitches, laughing at the actors and at ourselves.

Rating: 5 E’s

Stage Kiss continues through January 9, 2016 at San Francisco Playhouse, 450 Post Street.  Tickets are available at or by calling the box office at 415-677-9596.

Photos by Jessica Palopoli

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