Highbrow and Dirty-Minded

Sex farce has always been, to paraphrase Oscar Wilde, a trivial genre for serious people. Part of the reason is that the arch, ironic sensibilities of literary playwrights—from Aristophanes to G.B. Shaw to Joe Orton—cannot easily stomach the cheese of traditional romantic comedies. Sex farce subverts romance, displaying the black caulk behind love's gilded mirror. At the same time, its distorted caricature of courtship often lets us see more accurately the gross outlines of passion's truer features. Kiran Rikhye's smart yet lighthearted frolic Stage Kiss is no exception: it playfully teases out the tension between high-minded sexual mores and one's dirty-minded wish for more sex. In fact, Stage Kiss sends up the genre of sex farce itself with a gentle parody of its conventions.

Neptune's annual rape and sacrifice of a small Grecian island's most beautiful virgin has both Phyllida and Gallathea fearing for their lives. Rather than lose their chastity, they each separately strike upon a scheme to cross-dress as dashing gents and hide out in the woods. Upon meeting, both maids quickly fall for each other—thinking the other is a man, of course.

However, both are too timid to give either their disguise or their virginity away. Venus, Neptune's lover and rival, tries to get each maid to make the first move, but to little avail. Neptune finally discovers them—but, in the end, Venus has her own tricks to keep Neptune from turning his.

Intentionally redolent of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream and As You Like It on the surface, Stage Kiss has its real inspirational roots in Charles Ludlum's "theater of the ridiculous." Ludlum's work reveled in outrageous polysexual high jinks whose version of camp derived as much from the cheap thrill of its spectacle as from its whip-smart downtown wit.

Trashy glam rock and drag queens informed the quirky sensibility of Ludlum's stage shows, which delighted in extravagance of all types—whether it was glitter poured over an actor's entire body or the silent lilting of a single leaf falling from the rafters. But Ludlum's travesties were also knowing theatrical pastiches: they plundered genres both high and low, casting an ironic wink at their historical context even as they kept one eye wide open on the contemporary underground scene.

Stage Kiss is reminiscent of Ludlum's work, noticeably The Mystery of Irma Vep in the way Jon Campbell and Layna Fisher, the actors playing Neptune and Venus, run through a series of accelerating costume changes as they comically race around the stage also portraying Gallathea's and Phyllida's respective—though hardly respectable—single parent. Director Jon Stancato does a wonderful job pacing the play with lively blocking that veers into the madcap.

Likewise, the costumes, designed by Merav Elbaz Janowsky, provide another piquant source of humor because Gallathea is played by a fey Cameron J. Oro dressed obviously—but not too obtrusively—in drag. The effect can be dizzying as Oro negotiates the postures of gay and straight simultaneously while bending and blending genders.

With its nonstop sex jokes, the play undercuts any bombast that the deliberately archaic blank verse might possess. Neptune's trident, for example, is composed of three dildos, and, at one point Venus somersaults into Neptune's arms for some acrobatic cunnilingus.

In fact, the constant quips and double entendres come off even better for their vestige of anachronism, because the meter heightens the play's atmosphere of artifice without detracting from the dialogue's intelligibility, thanks to the concise yet colorful—and, quite often, off-color—verse.

Campbell and Fisher manage to get in cahoots with the audience during several scenes that demolish the fourth wall, which they milk for the giddy humor that arises from the awkwardness that audience interactions bring. (If you're not game to being put on the spot, though, make sure you sit well in the back of the small theater.) Fisher, especially, gains our affections as Venus, the slut who stumbles around in a drunken stupor but always slyly manages to come out on top—and over the top.

David Bengali's set design bedazzles with AstroTurf, chintzy blow-up trees, and fallen, Day-Glo leaves. But one of the best touches in this gaudy, disco-like diorama was a minimalist gesture: Venus pulls down a small blind center stage with the words "The Woods" written on it as she sprays some pine-scented air freshener for comic effect.

Unlike romantic comedies, where the inevitable happy ending is too often sickeningly predictable, the "happy ending" of Stage Kiss has a delightfully tongue-in-cheek twist. Audiences should walk away charmed by the play's escapades, gleeful with a guiltless spring fever. One feels thoroughly emancipated from serious concerns of laws, politics, and wars—as well as the unwritten rules of romance, sexual politics, and the battle of the genders.

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