Repertory Philippines opens its season with Stage Kiss, a play about blurring the lines between fantasy and reality in love and theater.
An actress begins her audition by passionately making out with a hapless understudy. Thus, Sarah Ruhl’s Stage Kiss lives up to its title from the opening scene and does not disappoint for the rest of the play as practically every cast member gets a smooch.
Stage Kiss tells the story of an out-of-work actress (“She” played by Missy Maramara) getting the lead in a cheesy 1930s melodrama only to find out that the man cast as her love interest (“He” played by Tarek El Tayech) is actually an ex-lover. Chaos ensues as they both try to navigate their murky history while trying to give authentic performances as passionate lovers. Inevitably, the lines between illusion and reality blur as they (and the audience) try to figure out if art imitates life or if it’s the other way around.
Stage Kiss contains two plays-within-the-play serving as effective devices for revealing the characters’ inner turmoil while keeping the performances vastly entertaining. The first act focuses on the aforementioned 1930s melodrama which is as bad as one imagines it is, but in a ‘so bad, it’s good’ kind of way. The lines are dated and cheesy, the accents are exaggerated, all supporting characters are named Millicent for some reason, and the actors are forced to move in such a stylized way, leaning forward unnaturally, with hands raised to express emotion, and with their heads tilted dramatically. It’s farcical and slapstick, and glorious.
The second act does not spend all its time on its other play, an edgy drama about a prostitute and a member of the IRA, but focuses more on the “real-life” dynamics of the actors and the consequences of their decisions in the first act. There are dramatic confrontations and profound realizations as She realizes that she needed to get lost first before she could find herself. It’s a significantly darker part of the story which elevates the play from merely becoming a comedy of errors (although there is a short musical number featuring a classic Broadway song that feels clumsily inserted into the proceedings.)
The already messy situation is further complicated by the presence of She’s husband (Robbie Guevara), their daughter (Justine Narciso), He’s girlfriend (Mica Pineda), their ambitious director (Jamie Wilson), the repressed understudy (Andres Borromeo), and the beleaguered accompanist (Nick Nangit.)
Missy Maramara is magnificent as She, deftly switching between different accents as she switches character. She’s able to balance the affectation of the 1930s drama with the cynicism of her character. At one point, she even plays a hooker with a Brooklyn accent. But her strongest moments are when she breaks character in her two plays-within-the-play and one sees the realization in her eyes whether about her true desires or her deepest regrets. She becomes the person the audience truly roots for, despite her questionable choices, because she is so painfully human.
Tarek El Tayech brings all the swagger and rakishness of the ex-lover to the role, one immediately sees sparks fly the moment he and Maramara share their first scene. He has such a physical presence that one never forgets that he is in a scene, even in the background. But he somehow doesn’t capture the charm and romantic side that supposedly seduces Maramara, and when the darker side of his personality is later revealed, one is hardly surprised.
Robbie Guevara is great as the husband, a figure of bland stability in contrast to El Tayech’s volatility. But later in the play, he reveals a more sinister side to him. Justine Narciso adds some frantic energy to the confrontation with her parents. Mica Pineda’s girlfriend character is more comic relief and plot device so it is a bit difficult to feel for her when El Tayech’s character is so obviously shady.
The standouts in the supporting cast are Jamie Wilson and Andres Borromeo, both adding levity even to the darker second act. Wilson frequently steals the scene as the well-meaning but not-so-brilliant director and budding playwright, as he doesn’t do much direction and simply advises his actors to “follow their instincts.” Borromeo shows some serious comedy chops as the flamboyantly gay understudy who is incapable of kissing a woman without looking like he’s about to devour her.
Stage Kiss is also a fun celebration of theater as it explores the creative process of putting on a show. The lines blurred between reality and fantasy were not just about love but also about acting itself, with actors having to distinguish when they are really rehearsing for the play or when they are playing actors rehearsing for a play. Tricky stuff.
There’s some fantastic set design by Ohm David, particularly an Art Deco-inspired set for the 1930s play (a bit reminiscent of The Great Gatsby) sharply contrasted with the squalid apartment of the starving actors in act two. Bonsai Cielo’s costumes are also memorable, particularly She’s emerald gown and He’s white suit for the 1930s play. (However, the less said about the husband’s horrible wig in act one, the better.)
For all the comedy and kissing, Stage Kiss is not easy to watch. Just like theater itself, there is so much more to this play than what meets the eye. The material is layered and the show takes you on some unexpected journeys along with She as she struggles to find her authentic truth while essentially pretending to be someone else. The tone of the play is “slippery” and it is tricky to find a balance between all the heightened theatrics of the internal plays while still revealing darker truths about the characters, but director Carlos Siguion-Reyna somehow managed this feat and the strong performances by the two leads add the needed nuance to the material. The play concludes in a suspiciously neat and tidy way, but then, after everything the characters have been through, they perhaps merit a bit of a happy ending.
Filled with moments both messy and mesmerizing, devastating and edifying, Stage Kiss is a lot like love itself. As it explores the different layers and complications that love may bring, this play would be an interesting choice to watch in the season of hearts.
Tickets: Php 1,000.00 - Php 2,000.00 Show Dates: Feb 7 ‘20, Feb 8 ‘20, Feb 9 ‘20, Feb 14 ‘20, Feb 15 ‘20, Feb 16 ‘20, Feb 21 ‘20, Feb 22 ‘20, Feb 23 ‘20, Feb 28 ‘20, Feb 29 ‘20, Mar 1 ’20 Venue: Onstage Theater, Greenbelt 1, Paseo De Roxas, Makati Running Time: Approx. 2 hours (w/ a 15 minute intermission) Credits: Carlos Siguion-Reyna (Director), Ohm David (Set Designer), Dennis Marasigan (Lighting Designer), Bonsai Cielo (Costume Designer), Jethro Joaquin (Sound Designer), PJ Rebullida (Choreographer) Cast: Missy Maramara, Tarek El Tayech, Robbie Guevara, Jamie Wilson, Andres Borromeo, Justine Narciso, Mica Pineda, Nick Nangit Company: Repertory Philippines