Stage Kiss, the new "trifle" from the Stolen Chair Theatre Company, is a delight from start to finish: it truly puts the "play" back in play.
The fun begins the moment we take our seats and peruse the set, which literally covers every available inch of the tiny Red Room stage. A great set, I think, not only provides an ambient environment for the play but gives the audience information about what's to come as well; that's precisely what David Bengali's masterful design for Stage Kiss does, brilliantly letting us know right up front what we're in for. There's festive greenery everywhere; the walls are festooned with flowers and an occasional classical-looking portrait of some ancient hero or god. It looks like a playground for A Midsummer Night's Dream, which as we will see is entirely appropriate; and the goofy kitschy elements—cuddly Gund-ish forest animals, plastic blow-up palm trees—suggest the Ridiculous Theatrical sensibility, which we'll also see is entirely suitable. Mostly Begali's design promises a great time ahead. Happily, his collaborators do not let him—or us—down.
As soon as the lights start to dim—or perhaps even a little bit before—the goddess Venus comes bounding in, looking slightly frazzled in a pink fairy costume; Layna Fisher plays her as a vaguely inebriated ditz, a cross between, I don't know, Parker Posey and Lisa Kudrow. Venus sets things up for us: we're in a town in ancient Greece, where once a year the god Neptune (portrayed lustily by Jon Campbell, clad in leopard-print bathing suit, see-thru plastic cape, and giant scuba-diver flippers) demands the sacrifice of a virgin in return for his protection of the city. (Yes, apparently these gods are not above extortion; they are also aware that they are Roman gods—it's that kind of show.)
Puritanus (also played by Fisher) is the blustery father of a fair young maid named Gallathea; Veneria (Campbell) is the dithery mother of another fair young maid, Phyllida. (The fair young maids are played, respectively, by Cameron J. Oro and Alexia Vernon.) Both parents are distraught by the possibility that Neptune may choose their daughters for this year's sacrifice, and so each contrives to hide his/her prize from the randy god by disguising her as a boy and sending her into the woods. And so Gallathea becomes Queerius and Phyllida becomes Gynophilus, the two girls-dressed-as-boys discover each other, instantly fall in love, and then have to work out the sexual politics of the resultant confusing situation.
Neptune, of course, catches wind of this hoax being perpetrated against him and introduces some additional complications to the plot. So does Venus, who is both Titania and Puck in this particular Midsummer Night's Dream; as do the two interfering parents. By the end of a very fleet 80 minutes or so, all is worked out satisfactorily, with Phyllida and Gallathea affirming their own love even as Veneria and Puritanus and Venus and Neptune pursue theirs.
Romp that it is, Stage Kiss is no trifle at all, but in fact a canny and clever parody/paean/satire/tribute of/to, oh, several of Shakespeare's comedies (Midsummer and As You Like It come instantly to mind), classical mythology, Charles Ludlam's Ridiculous Theatre, and other stuff that I will think of later. Playwright Kiran Rikhye demonstrates her remarkable versatility (as she has done in her previous works The Man Who Laughs and Commedia dell'Artemesia), here penning what sounds like authentic Elizabethan verse that is often hilariously funny without ever feeling forced or lame. In the midst of these literary and poetical pyrotechnics, she introduces the very contemporary question of hetero- vs. homosexual couplings, arriving at a conclusion that is at once playful and authentically liberal (here I use that word in the most classical and traditional sense).
The sexual shenanigans are of course complicated by director Jon Stancato's decision to cast a man as Gallathea and a woman as a (much more butch) Phyllida: so we have a boy portraying a girl dressed as a boy falling in love with someone she thinks is a boy but who in fact is a girl dressed as a boy (played by a girl—phew!). Stancato somehow manages to make all of this gender-bending as naturally naive as it might have been in Shakespeare's time and, simultaneously, as provocatively subversive as it was is Ludlum's. Case in point: the most passionate kiss in the piece is one that Neptune plants on the cross-dressed Gallathea as he's about to make her this year's sacrifice: our very visceral reaction is informed by the circumstance in the play (this sweet young thing is about to be raped) and by the homoerotic context (we know that these are two men kissing). Stancato keeps us on our toes in this fashion, all the while keeping us wildly diverted and amused: good stuff.
Four splendid young actors bring Stancato and Rikhye's inspirations to life. Oro and Vernon are appealing and witty as Gallathea and Phyllida, creating a couple to root for regardless of what sex each appears to be or actually is at any given moment. But the acting honors truly belong to Campbell and Fisher, who master the quick-change aspect of their roles with spectacular felicity and create a pair of dazzling comic creations apiece. Fisher, in particular, is so deft at characterization that (thanks to Merav Elbaz's great costumes), I forgot she was playing both Venus and Puritanus and assumed that someone else had slipped into the show at the last minute.
Pay attention to all of the names I've mentioned here: Stolen Chair is one of NYC's most impressive new companies, and it will be exciting to see whatever they choose to tackle next. Meantime, treat yourself to one of this season's charmingest "trifles" and let these talented young artists plant their Stage Kiss on you.