By Mike Keenan
Marilyn Monroe once said, “Hollywood is a place where they'll pay you a thousand dollars for a kiss and 50 cents for your soul. I know, because I turned down the first offer often enough and held out for the 50 cents.”
Have you ever wondered about the chemistry involved when actors kiss on stage? Isn’t that how Hollywood marriages become doomed?
Elizabeth Taylor who was married eight times — twice to Richard Burton. The two fell in love on the set of the 1963 film Cleopatra — they divorced their previous spouses and married each other.
The Shaw Festival’s Stage Kiss at the Royal George Theatre explores a similar situation — things run amuck when a stage kiss becomes a real one.
Two hostile exes – She (a.k.a. Fiona Byrne in the play) and He (a.k.a. Martin Happer) – are accidentally cast in The Last Kiss as passionate lovers in the 1930s melodrama.
Byrne, an aging actress, is bewitched, bothered and bewildered, married to an emotionless financier and saddled with an insolent 16-year-old daughter. Her main claim to artistic fame in the past 10 years is a convincing anti-depressant commercial.
Happer is a man-boy who inhabits a grubby New York studio apartment. He’s in a relationship with a school teacher from the Midwest, which he frivolously describes as “optimistic.”
Bryne has not auditioned for a long time and when she is surprisingly successful (with a stand-in for the male role), she soon realizes that she will be working with her former lover. The play involves them kissing repeatedly. Suddenly, they are confronted with desires they thought had long faded away.
We watch the two slowly lose touch with reality in a play-within-a-play.
Stage Kiss is particularly funny in the first act, set largely in a rehearsal room in New Haven, but it sags in the second.
Meadows is a gay cast member who, when forced to stand in for the romantic male lead, worries his portrayal of a man kissing a woman won't be convinving enough.
In theatre terms, the play is a farce — “a comic dramatic piece that uses highly improbable situations, stereotyped characters, extravagant exaggeration, and violent horseplay.”
In Stage Kiss, we have most of those ingredients, though the play waffles between farce and romantic comedy, never quite sure which way to go.
The principal characters “He” and “She” help identify our lack of connection with Byrne and Happer, who amuse us less and less as they kiss more and more.
In one memorable exchange, Byrne asks Happer why audiences enjoy watching other people kiss.
“They don't enjoy it,” Happer explains. “They tolerate it … because it signifies resolution…an idea of beauty completing itself.”
The Shaw cast includes Neil Barclay (Director), Jeff Meadows (Kevin, Barclay’s assistant), Sanjay Talwar (Byrne’s husband), Sarena Parmar (Millie, the daughter) and Rong Fu (Millicent, Happer’s girlfriend).
The set and costume designs by Gillian Gallow feature multiple locales and eras – a modern-day rehearsal hall to an opulent 1930s Art Nouveau-styled apartment to a grungy 1970s apartment to a theatre’s backstage.
Stage Kiss is written by Sarah Ruhl, directed by Anita Rochon runs until Sept. 1 at the Royal George Theatre, 85 Queen St., Niagara-on-the-Lake. Visit shawfest.com or call 1-800-511-7429 for tickets.
Mike Keenan is a NOTL resident who writes poetry, humour, travel, performing arts pieces and podcasts — all available on his website at whattravelwriterssay.com. He has been published in newspapers and magazines throughout North America.