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A play within a play about theater cliches

Put your meta-hat on, because this is going to be one wild ride.

Even after Shakespeare’s famous proclamation that “all the world’s a stage,” the idea of the world as a stage and the stage as  reality continues to fascinate playwrights. Sarah Ruhl is among them, and her play Stage Kiss, currently playing at Goodman Theatre, offers another take on the relationship between the romantic world of the stage and the monotony of reality.

Stage Kiss tells the story of two estranged lovers (He and She) who play the role of two estranged lovers. After having separated many years ago, they meet again as the leading actors in a play. Soon, life starts to imitate art (or is it art imitating life?) as the two fall in love again. Their love, of course, bears a purposeful resemblance to that of the protagonists they play. However, this close correlation between stage and reality begins to dissipate in the second act; reality and the romance of the stage diverge, and the two are left to decide which they prefer.

The unique nature of this play lies in the fact that it’s a play about plays, and, often, a play within a play. This raises a question: To what extent can theatre really imitate life? Even in Stage Kiss, an irreverent send-up of some of the biggest of theatre clichés, some things are just not cliché. The entire plot is bizarre, convoluted, and hilarious, but in the end, it’s still a play, and the audience expects conclusion and reconciliation, which, of course, is not guaranteed in life. This is not a limitation; on the contrary, by writing a play about plays and drawing our attention to the fact that the characters’ reality is only a performance for the audience, Ruhl has caused us to question and ponder the very nature of theatre in a profound way.

Essentially, though, this is a play more about love than about theatre. There’s a reason it’s called Stage Kiss and not, say, False Exit (another theatre trope ridiculed by Ruhl). Many plays about love– Romeo and Juliet, for example– tell stories of true love and two people meant to be together. Yet to create that story about love, two actors must pretend to be in love, must kiss and make believe, though each may in reality love and be married to another. And, of course, what we see onstage are usually the most romantic parts: Two people falling in love and coming together. What theatre doesn’t show us, of course, is what would have happened if Romeo and Juliet had not killed themselves. Would they be happily married a decade later, or would they, more likely, have decided that their love was infatuation and have moved on? In the end, as She comes to a realization about the differences between love on stage and in real life, so does the audience.

However, the actors also deserve recognition for bringing life to this complex play. It’s extremely difficult to play a terrible actor well, and both Jenny Bacon (She) and Mark Montgomery (He) are really good at doing a really bad job. They can effectively switch between “candid” and “onstage” personalities, and the entire cast handles the complex theme exceptionally. Scott Jaeck is also particularly touching as She’s patient, long-suffering husband. They remind us how much good actors truly become the characters they’re playing, and how important that is for creating the illusion of theatre.

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