Much anticipation accompanied my latest visit to The Shaw in Niagara on the Lake, as the Festival was staging a modern play dating back to just 2011 by Sarah Ruhl, entitled Stage Kiss. The play within a play concept has been mined many times before, of course, but looking at the classic juxtaposition through a more modern lens was one I was especially looking forward to.
Stage Kiss, at the compact and cosy Royal George Theatre, is in exactly the right space. It would be totally lost on the huge Festival Theatre stage; here the intimacy of the space helps to magnify the intimacy shared by the two lead actors known simply as She and He.
In a nutshell, Stage Kiss introduces us to Fiona Byrne as She, who has been out of the acting profession for about ten years to raise a family, and Martin Happer as He, an actor who has not been working all that much as of late. They both need this job, and as it turns out, each other too.
Both He and She were formerly lovers in what passes for real life in this play, a parody of actors actually in that former state. At a dank rehearsal hall, both He and She come together to audition for the two lead parts not knowing the other was going to be there. Indeed, neither has kissed the other in years and with good reason. Things did not end well for them years ago, apparently.
But here they are, together again, kissing on stage in a play that portrays two actors falling in love and...kissing on stage.
It begs the question: can actors kiss and not feel some sort of chemical interaction between them? Or can those same kisses ignite passions either for the first time or all over again?
The answer appears to be the latter. Yes, He and She fall in love all over again in spite of past history suggesting they will not succeed. Problem is, She has a husband and a daughter; He has a girlfriend, who just happens to walk in on them in the second act as they awaken in his scruffy apartment and does not immediately put two and two together, discovering it does not add up to three.
There are lots of complications in this play within a play, not all of them deftly handled by playwright Ruhl. But taken at face value it can be a lot of fun as the audience feels they are in on the gag and voyeurs of sorts at the same time.
The cast, under the clever direction of Anita Rochon, does a magnificent job with the script for the most part and have great fun in the process. Fiona Byrne hits all the right notes as She; Neil Barclay is solid and quite understated as the Director of the forgotten 1930s melodrama the actors are auditioning for. I couldn't help but think, however, he was just a bit more understanding and tolerant than some directors I have come to know over the years...
Other supporting cast members putting in solid work are Jeff Meadows as Kevin, the gay actor who perhaps has a non-professional connection to the director although it is never clearly spelled out, and Rong Fu as He's girlfriend Millicent. She has one big scene in the play and makes the most of it. Meadows, by mocking a gay actor's supposed inability to kiss a woman in a sensual way is hilarious to watch but one can't help but think he is doing a great disservice to those in the profession who actually find themselves in that position.
That leaves us with the role of He, and here I have a problem with the performance I attended. I could imagine Martin Happer in this role and being a genuine love-interest to Fiona Byrne's She. Unfortunately, for whatever reason the performance I attended featured understudy Sanjay Talwar in the role of He, rather than his usual role of She's husband.
Talwar is a talented, solid actor with lots of memorable performances at Shaw and elsewhere on his resume. This, unfortunately, is not one of them. He gives a solid performance here as He, but for me there simply was no chemistry between him and Fiona Byrne's She. True he is only the understudy but still, in a pivotal role such as this I feel the entire dynamic of the play was altered more that I would have liked.
In Talwar's place in the role of the Husband, Andrew Lawrie gave a credible performance.
Oh well, no idea if it was an unscheduled absence on the part of Happer or not, but he was clearly missed at the performance I recently attended.
So, is Stage Kiss worth the visit? If you want a fun afternoon or evening of light theatre that doesn't make you think too hard and get a behind-the-scenes look at the world of theatre, sure, it is well worth the visit. But if you're looking for more proverbial meat on the bones as it were, I suggest you look elsewhere this season.
Stage Kiss continues at the Royal George Theatre until September 1st, and rates a moderate 2 out of 4 stars.
Enjoy the weekend!
July 21st, 2018.
Saturday, July 21, 2018
Stage Kiss at Shaw Festival a fun play, but not perfect
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