By Sujata S. Mukhi

Stage Kiss
Presented by Repertory Philippines
Directed by Carlos Siguion-Reyna
Feb. 7 to March 1
Pmstage Theater, Greenbelt 1, Ayala Center, Makati

SLIPPERY TONE. The phrase is mentioned several times in Repertory Philippines’ 83rd season opener, Stage Kiss, suggesting the director’s dilemma on how to handle the variations in text, subtext and metatext of a complex play. In this case, the phrase refers to the troubles of both the character of the Director in the play (Jamie Wilson), as well as Stage Kiss’ actual director Carlos Siguion-Reyna.

Playwright Sarah Ruhl may have sought to walk theater’s fine line between reality and illusion, or rather present an exaggerated reality to draw out finer truths. She did this magnificently with In the Next Room (or The Vibrator Play), Rep’s 2017 production under Chris Millado that deftly toggled between absurdity and tenderness as the characters explored sexual repression and expression. Beyond stage kisses there were full on stage orgasms!

In Stage Kiss, Ms. Ruhl embeds a play (a really bad 1930s melodrama entitled The Last Kiss) within the play to mark a clear demarcation between what is real and what is not. The deliberately pompous flourish of dialogue delivery between lovers onstage in The Last Kiss is markedly distinct from the awkward navigation of raw desire behind the scenes. Then there are other scenes where the wor(l)ds are so intertwined, the lines so blurred, demanding that the actors switch from breathless elocution to quiet rage; or fake sensuality to actual arousal, all at the same time. The titular stage kiss during “rehearsals,” and choreographed stage business are done over and over again in Groundhog Day fashion, with each repetition finding different, deeper, exhilarating, sometimes darker contexts. These scenes require immense physicality from the actors, exquisite timing, and a slow burn of emotion leading to an eruption. In this production there was a lot of the first two, but flames of feeling were too feeble, or didn’t bubble enough below the surface, or seemed too — forgive the word — staged. At least in Act I.

The characters She (played by possibly the most prolific actress in local theater this past year Missy Maramara) and He (the volatile Tarek El Tayech, fresh from another volatile role as Macbeth) are actors and erstwhile lovers, both cast in The Last Kiss playing, well, erstwhile lovers Ada and Johnny. Act I focuses on She and He as they initially resist rekindling their romance but eventually succumb, unfaithful to their respective partners, as do their stage counterparts Ada and Johnny. The rest of the ensemble goes on- and offstage with multiple roles: Robbie Guevarra is interestingly both stage husband to Ada in Act I and real husband in Act II to She. Andres Borromeo is stage manager and understudy Kevin, and plays several other actors. Justine Narciso is stage Maid and stage Daughter in Act I, and real daughter Angela in Act II. Micaela Pineda is stage friend in Act I and real fiancé in Act II. Jamie Wilson is the Director of The Last Kiss in Act I, and is the same Director of another, even more ridiculously awful play-within-a-play in Act II, cumbersomely entitled I Loved you before I Killed you, or Blurry. (Yes, Stage Kiss has two plays-within-a-play, not to mention She’s narration of a haunting Japanese story that gives the word “ghosting” an entirely new level of meaning.)

Add singing and dancing to this odd mélange, and there is much opportunity for tones to slip, and slip big.

Act I in particular should have generated more interest as the premise was set up: stage play mirroring real life; age-old conflict between desire for neat stability vs desire for messy passion; inside jokes and ironic, self-reflexive, self-deprecating rumination about what it means to be an artist, a performer, and the moral ambiguity of “showmances” and romances in the backstage world of the theater. All of that should have been more engaging, and should have elicited hearty laughter. But unlike In the Next Room, where one could connect with both the humor and desperation of being deprived of intimacy, there’s not much to care about these characters in Stage Kiss. This interpretation of the first part of Stage Kiss deliberately leans a little more towards exaggeration, more a farce, but with confusing glimpses of pained vulnerability that actor Missy Maramara, in the lead role of She, seems constrained to contain. The lines aren’t blurry enough to be fully interesting, fully funny or fully tragic.

Gears shift significantly in Act II however. The curtains open to a messy New York apartment, striking in detail thanks to Ohm David’s meticulous set. (This is an obvious and surprising contrast from the austerity of the drawing room of the wealthy family of The Last Kiss in Act I.) In one superbly executed scene, He and She, taking up their new roles in the second play-within-a-play (Blurry for short), literally rough it up and tumble while they say their lines, then alternately spew accusations and blurt painful revelations about their real love affair gone wrong. Those blurred lines are wrenching, and Ms. Maramara and Mr. El Tayech are in their absolute element, cruel and crazed. No tone is slippery there. In a later scene, the Director and He rehearse tossing Ms. Maramara onto a bed over and over again, and the violence that underlies that may even be construed as a statement on what actors go through or are used for by those in control of the art. Towards the end, a gesture of what seems to come from love and reconciliation by She’s husband, played with warm charm by Robbie Guevarra, has a Svengali undertone of manipulation that can be missed. Guevarra’s keenly felt, commanding presence makes that believable.

Justine Narciso is funny as the stage Maid, but plays a one-note, shouting adolescent daughter, perhaps a compensation for being a little too old for the role. Jaime Wilson could have cranked up his Director a notch or two, but it’s always comforting to see him onstage, knowing that he reliably delivers any role given to him. Andres Borromeo easily switches from role to role, and is especially hilarious as the understudy. Micaela Pineda, who plays He’s fiancé Laurie in Act II, needs to have her passive aggressive core bust through.

The myriad shades of Stage Kiss require the director to decide what tone he wants to cast over the script, or under it. How light, how dark, how deep, how frivolous. In the play, the cuckolded husband reminds She of the words told to them years ago by a well-wisher before their wedding: “I wish that you love each other a lot, but not too much, not too much right away, but slowly, over time, so it doesn’t explode like a star.” This Stage Kiss couldn’t decide what was too much or too little. It sparked in parts, sputtered in others, leaving lukewarm embers. And to keep the metaphor intact, instead of exploring a provocative tone, as In the Next Room did, these colors washed out a little.

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