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Fiona Byrne as She and Martin Happer as He in Stage Kiss.

Emily Cooper/Shaw Festival

  • Title: Stage Kiss
  • Written by: Sarah Ruhl
  • Genre: Comedy
  • Director: Anita Rochon
  • Actors: Fiona Byrne, Martin Happer
  • Company: The Shaw Festival
  • Venue: The Royal George Theatre
  • City: Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont.
  • Year: To Sept. 1, 2018

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Put this Stage Kiss on your list: Already, with just its second opening of the 2018 season, the Shaw Festival has a strong contender for best comedy of the summer.

American playwright Sarah Ruhl’s 2011 play is a backstage farce with heart and a pair of sizzling performances at its centre by long-time Niagara-on-the-Lake favourites Fiona Byrne and Martin Happer.

The two play a pair of actors in their mid-40s identified in the program only as She and He – former lovers who haven’t seen each other in almost two decades.

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She and He reunite after all that time in a rehearsal room when they are cast opposite each other in a forgotten 1930s melodrama – playing lovers who reunite after not seeing each other in almost two decades.

In real life, or what passes for it in Ruhl’s play, these actors are very recognizable types: She’s married, has a child and is nervously returning to the stage after a decade away; He, meanwhile, has worked steadily but moved from city to city and doesn’t have a credit card let alone a steady girlfriend.

Preparing for their opening in New Haven, She and He first clash and rehash old arguments, but gradually, their passion reignites as they kiss over and over in rehearsal and performance. “When I kissed you just now, did it feel like an actor kissing an actor or a person kissing a person?” she asks at one point – a mind-boggling question with an added layer of boggle for the minds of the audiences watching these two fine actors play actors (and, it must be said, with the best chemistry I’ve ever seen on a Shaw Festival stage).

You might think you know where Stage Kiss is going at this point, but one of the pleasures of Ruhl’s play is how it subverts – in a subtly feminist way – expectations for a play about a play, going beyond a simple joke about performance versus reality to a deeper investigation of the different types of performance we like to give on stage and off. This is smart, not merely clever, comedy writing.

Without giving too much away, I’ll tell you that Ruhl’s nested plots require the uber-talented designer Gillian Gallow to create three different sets: a brick-walled rehearsal room that looks authentic; a Streamline Moderne 1930s set that Ruhl describes in her script as “artifice happy to be artifice”; and a realistic-looking East Village apartment the playwright describes as “artifice ashamed to be artifice.”

Ruhl uses shifting forms and sets to show us the stages of an affair and the limits of one. “Marriage is about repetition,” one character says in a speech that crystallizes the ideas behind this only seemingly unruly play. “Every night the sun goes down and moon comes up and you have another chance to be good. Romance is not about repetition.”

As the lights went down at the start of Stage Kiss, I found myself channelling Man in Chair from The Drowsy Chaperone and writing on my pad: “Please, please be funny.”

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For some reason, theatre about theatre often isn’t and can bring out the worst in actors and directors, as it did a few years back when the Shaw revived a deservedly forgotten 1940s backstage comedy that I will hopefully never have to write the name of ever again.

Thankfully, Stage Kiss’s director Anita Rochon has a great eye and ear for comedy. She knows when to let the actors go broad and when to ask them to draw on something more emotionally truthful.

We see that, in particular, in Sarena Parmar and Sanjay Talwar’s controlled supporting performances – first playing She’s co-stars, then playing She’s fictional character’s daughter and husband, then playing She’s actual daughter and husband. The pair handle the tonal shifts required with panache.

Neil Barclay gives a lovely understated comic turn as the unnamed director of the 1930s play that he believes unfairly failed when it originally debuted. (His performance in this play reminded me of his great one on the same Royal George stage a decade ago in Terence Rattigan’s After the Dance, a 1930s play that did, indeed, unfairly fail when it originally debuted.)

When given the opportunity, Rong Fu got a few big laughs as He’s girlfriend and Jeff Meadows, as an overacting understudy, got some even bigger ones in the biggest performance of the evening, one that was unforgivable in theory but hilarious in practice.