Friday, Oct. 14, 2011

Thoughts After A Prelude

Sunset Playhouse’s Prelude to a Kiss

By Russ Bickerstaff
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After last weekend, I was a bit concerned that I had started to lose a critical perspective on things. I loved everything that opened last week. Theatrical Tendencies’ The Little Dog Laughed is brilliant and well balanced. In Tandem’s Mrs. Mannerly is a lot of fun even in its shallower moments. I liked nearly everything about Next Act’s Exonerated. It’s kind of a relief after last weekend to see a show I didn’t like. Its reassuring to know that I can still dislike something. 

The Sunset Playhouse’s Prelude To A Kiss is built on the remarkably solid foundation of a really, really well-written script. The story is clever: Boy meets girl. They fall in love. They get married, shortly after which she indulges an old man’s desire to kiss her and girl and old man switch bodies. On the honeymoon, boy begins to suspect the girl isn’t the girl anymore and now boy, girl and old man have to come to terms with their new lives. And as bizarrely fantastic as the script is,  playwright Craig Lucas does a really good job of making it all seem quite believable.

The Sunset Playhouse’s production looks quite good on the surface. J. Michael Desper’s design is crisp and streamlined with a beautiful metropolitan skyline in the background. Aaron Schmidt’s lighting design drapes the set rather stylishly with s delicately-realized bit of lighting design work for the final transformation. On the surface, Shawn Michael Kokoszka and Rachel Sciacca make for a really attractive couple to fall into a romantic comedy with. The contrast of the two against the distinctive likeness of Doug Smedbron as the older gentleman makes for a very dramatic visual. On the surface it’s all quite good, but there’s a cavernous vacancy at the heart of the production that keeps it from being satisfying.

Rachel Sciacca plays a deeply idiosyncratic woman. She’s an insomniac—she hasn’t  slept for years. Rachel Sciacca plays a remarkably well-rested insomniac. I grew-up on asthma medicines—didn’t get much of any sleep for a few years in grade school. I know firsthand—there’s a kind of desperate, listless restlessness about insomnia that’s subtle. You’re always awake and you’re always asleep and you’re NEVER well-rested. That’s really difficult to bring across, (Edward Norton did a really good job of capturing that frazzled energy in the Fight Club movie, but I digress . . . ) The script layers in that restlessness with a brilliantly idiosyncratic mode of speech that is subtle and breathtakingly out of synch with the world around her. Sciacca speaks the words without finding the psychological place that Lucas is writing them from. As a result, her performance here is kind of shallow. Yes, it’s real pretty and Sciacca has genuine stage charm, but without any depth it lacks the kind of unique emotional integrity it needs to make her end of the romance very compelling.

This is not to say that Kokoszka does a particularly good job of holding up his end of the stage romance either. Admittedly, the script doesn’t necessarily give him much to work with. We don’t get very much of who he is as a person aside from his love for her, but what Craig Lucas does give him is a really charming awkwardness as he falls deeply, deeply in love with an idealistic insomniac woman. His bewilderment at her beauty and his feelings for her make for a really charming personality that is deeply vulnerable and an impressively quirky way . . .but as good as Kokoszka is with the charm, he’s just not terribly good with the quirky discomfort of falling for this woman. As a result, he doesn’t feel as vulnerable as he needs to be to make for a compelling performance.

The really frustrating thing about the lack of a compelling central romance is the fact that Sciacca and Kokoszka seem to be perfectly good stage actors—each one of them shows impressive talent up there . . . just not with each other. When she becomes the old man, his subtle suspicions are brought to the stage with a sly attention to detail that’s a lot of fun to watch. And I realize this is probably kind of a backhanded complement, but Sciacca is actually really interesting as an elderly man trapped in the body of a young woman. The fact that she’s much more compelling as an old man than she is as an insomniac is a bit frustrating. Thankfully, she’s not at all exaggerated as the old man trapped in her body. But neither of the accomplishments of either actor can overcome the fact that the romance between their characters isn’t terribly compelling. So there’s nothing holding the production together very well in the center of it all.

For his part, Doug Smedbron does a really outstanding job of playing a young woman trapped in his body as well. There’s a tenderness about the way he moves in the role that is really charming, but without a more interesting pairing to play off against, Smedbron’s performance doesn’t have much of a chemistry to latch into.  

With a pair of decent actors at the center of the production failing to put in decent portrayal, it would be fairly easy to blame the director. Honestly though, the flow of action from one moment to the next is so cleverly realized that it would appear as though Director Matt Daniels really isn’t to blame here. He’s done such a good job with everything else that the lack of chemistry at the center of it all probably rested beyond the scope of any one person to deal with effectively.  

The Sunset Playhouse’s production of Prelude to a Kiss runs through October 30th. For ticket reservations, call 262-782-4430 or visit the Sunset Playhouse online.

 

 

 

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