November 18, 2005

University Theater’s Stop Kiss gives the kiss-off to sexual violence

It’s often all too easy to forget some of the harsher realities of the world we live in. As a socially liberal intellectual—generally surrounding myself with like-minded people at one of the greatest bastions of academia while living the so-called “life of the mind”—it takes a truly jarring experience to remind me of how much hate and violence there is out there in the world at large. Diana Son’s Stop Kiss, put on at University Theater this week, is one such experience.

It is the story of two women who meet by chance and, although ostensibly straight, are irresistibly drawn to each other. However, just as they begin to come to terms with and openly express their conflicted feelings, a horrible act of violence puts one of them into a coma, calling into question whether coming out was ultimately a good thing for either of them.

Stop Kiss was first produced in New York in 1998, and seven years later it remains just as poignant. Some of the most powerful plays in the modern dramatic canon—such as Angels in America and The Laramie Project—explore the same theme of what it means to be a homosexual in America today. This particular production is very timely, because it is going up at the end of the U of C’s Sexual Violence Prevention Week. More than being just about what it means to come out as a lesbian, it explores honesty, vulnerability, and risk in very profound and universal ways.

The characters are portrayed honestly, naturally, and simply, which is a testament to both the cast and the director (fourth-year Amy Steelman). The naturalistic style works very well for bringing the audience into this intimate and contemporary story. Rather than being overly tricky or conceptual and fighting the text, Steelman chooses to focus on telling the story with honest, realistic characters. She lets the script flow naturally, and it works quite well. The cast follows suit, not “acting” too much, but just letting the characters exist.

Although the technical elements of the production are not the focus of the show, they complement the action very effectively. The minimal set of curtains and cubes (designed by first-year Brenton Wright) is just enough to define the space and allow for the various location changes without being intrusive, letting the audience focus entirely on the characters. Third-year Lila McDowell’s lighting design is subtle and elegant, again just present enough to set the mood of the action and define the space without being distracting.

The one recurring problem, however, is that the transitions between the short scenes are consistently too long, breaking up the momentum of the show and preventing the audience from engaging as much as they could. This is as much a problem with the script as with anything else. It is written in a cinematic style, with quick location and time changes between a rapid-fire series of scenes. Although this may work well on paper, it is incredibly difficult to stage effectively. However poignant the scenes themselves may be, they are weakened considerably when so much time is just dead air as the actors make costume changes in preparation for the next scene.

That being said, the cast does achieve some truly touching moments, and the powerful themes of the play still come through. There is an especially poignant scene where Callie (fourth-year Cassie Phillipps) helps the recovering Sarah (first-year Evelyn Dehais) dress herself. The tenderness and honesty of the two actors are beautiful.

Although it has a few problems in the execution, UT’s production of Stop Kiss is still a powerful experience, and it would be well worth any audience member’s evening.