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WRITTEN BY – Sarah Ruhl

Circle Theatre

SHE – Sarah Rutan
HE – Patrick Bynane
DIRECTOR – David Fenley
HUSBAND / HARRISON – Jeremy Schwartz
KEVIN / BUTLER / DOCTOR / PIMP – Adolfo Becerra
MILLIE / MAID / ANGELA – Ashlee Waldbauer

DIRECTED BY – Emily Scott Banks
SET DESIGN – Clare Floyd DeVries
SOUND DESIGN – David H.M. Lambert
COMPOSER – Parker Greenwood
PRODUCTION ASSISTANTS – Madison Acuna Taylor, Britton Melton

Reviewed Performance: 8/25/2018

Reviewed by Travis McCallum, Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN

A passionate affair between two long lost lovers rekindles a flame in “Stage Kiss” at the Circle Theatre this month and I had the pleasure to review it under the careful direction of Emily Scott Banks.

Lights open on a barren thrust stage, save for two bar stools in the center and a table laden with coffee breakroom attire. Jazz echoes across the room in an upbeat melody. The actors assume their positions: Kevin (Adolfo Becerra) sitting on one stool, and the Director (David Fenley) sets a chair downstage for the first audition.

Enter She.

A hot mess of nervous energy charges the room—unprepared, self-conscious, rambling in self-doubt and at the same time completely brilliant. She captivates the two men with her extraordinary talent setting the stage for what is to come.

Throughout the next two and a half hours, follow the story of She’s (Sarah Rutan) return to the world of acting after a 16 year hiatus.

Coincidently Rutan is cast with her old lover He (Patrick Bynane), where the conflict of the story hammers down between their muddled past and their present circumstances. Rutan with a husband and daughter; Brynane with a schoolteacher girlfriend.

The two run through the rehearsal process of a play about a woman on her deathbed, who secretly cheats on her husband (Jeremy Schwartz) with a famous sculptor. Miraculously she becomes healthy thanks to his presence. But when the husband discovers the affair, he becomes angry and learns that his daughter Millie (Ashlee Waldbaurer) has been kidnapped… well let’s just say things did not end quite happily.

After the first play, Rutan & Bynane take their intimate relationship off the stage and to bed. They are greeted the next day by an angry daughter, girlfriend & husband in the apartment. Distraught, Rutan begins to question her decisions while Bynane tries to comfort her. The director arrives with a brand new play he’s decided to cast the pair in again.

Hesitantly, both accept for the financial incentive. The plot: A whore and her Irish boyfriend are having a violent fight filled with rough love until the pimp comes to ‘save the day.’ The second play forces Rutan to live through an emotionally suffocating experience until she finally cracks on opening night.

By the end of the show, clarity arrives and the illusion is shattered as Rutan finally discovers what’s most important in life and Bynane is finally able to let go of her.

I wanted to go into this performance blind and figure out for myself exactly what story Banks was trying to tell with Playwright Sarah Ruhl’s words. To me, “Stage Kiss” is about human connection. Ruhl taps into one simple question: How is kissing a stranger any different than someone you know? She uses this play to explore the relationships of actors as an example of kissing strangers where it’s socially acceptable.

In an effort to compare different kissing styles, the awkward exchange between Rutan & Becerra is our first glimpse of the all-to-familiar kiss. The inexperienced, the virgin appeal where Becerra practically eats her face with his gaping mouth. His excuse… ‘I don’t like women.’

The next iteration of lustful reckless abandon is when Bynane and Rutan vye for control in full fury. She on top, he on top. Their power struggle to be the aggressor paints a vivid picture of wild animalistic galloping. Whereby the next difficult point comes across… Bynane is insatiable.

Watching these different versions of the human experience unfold is an enjoyable venture because everyone can find something to relate with. Kisses galore litter the show with a lesbian exchange between Rutan & Millicent (Natalie Young), and my favorite—a tender kiss between husband and wife.

I think the dialogue between Bynane and Rutan shed some insight on how we as an audience view intimacy. One of the most thematic moments is in the first act. In between scenes Bynane talks about the difference between sex in movies and kissing on stage as a desirable experience for audience members.

He explores this concept for actors on the public and private personas that give us the courage to do what we do. Audiences vicariously enjoy touch through actors in public. And yet, actors find it increasingly difficult to separate real feelings from character feelings of love—in turn creating fear of the real concept of human intimacy. A strange paradox indeed.

The actors themselves performed spectacularly well. Many wore multiple hats throughout the show seamlessly transforming into new personalities with the exception of one star. You will know him as Kevin playing the Butler, the Doctor and the Pimp.

Watch as Becerra creates a memorable performance as an adolescent high-pitched boy filled with bouts of explosive enthusiasm for stage combat, relative fear of intimacy, and the most wide-lipped smile of innocence on the stage. His staccato stance is the ultimate nightmare of any casting director—maybe that’s why he was the understudy!

No matter which character he played, Becerra sounded the exact same, which was definitely an intentional direction. I appreciate how consistent he was throughout the whole play. My favorite parts of Beccara was his line, “Mr. Wilcox. Ms. Wilcox” when he played the doctor delivering the bad news.

Fenley gave due justice to a director of utmost diplomacy. He played the role of an enabler—open-minded and suggestive. I am reminded of a man who prefers to avoid confrontation and doesn’t like stepping on the toes of others.

What sold me most was Fenley’s creative storytelling. When he thought up an idea for a play, and ran the audience through each piece of the action moment by moment, I was hooked.

I was a little disappointed when he was describing the Detroit play, Fenley would be so into his own story and towards the end, he would abruptly exit and look to Rutan & Bynane for validation before returning back into his story. I think breaking out of his moment also took the audience out of the fantasy too.

Rutan’s incredible range throughout the show blew me away. Her courage to tackle so many different personalities from the actress, mother, wife and whore each with their distinct place was lovely to watch. My favorite part of Rutan was following her train of thought through the scenes. She carried the conversation fluidly and there was never a point of dead silence where there didn’t need to be. The entire pacing of the show rode on her shoulders.

Rutan strapped us in our seats and gave us a tour on the emotional rollercoaster. She raised us high with impulsive flings, suspended us in time with past & present feelings of maternal, sensual & jealous love. She cascaded us into an underground cave of despair as she wrestled between what she thought was right and what she felt. Her final reckoning at the end of the ride gave resolution.

A truly spectacular role for a very talented woman.

Schwartz is the rock of the whole show. He is the glue that keeps everyone together. His role as husband and father throughout the play is all about the concept of stability and commitment. Despite the boringness we so associate with stability, Schwartz does an excellent job at selling comedy with his own small bits.

When the rehearsal process began, he nailed his lines perfectly. His smug comment being off-book with a sizzling gesture signaled a personality trait of arrogance. Interestingly, it was completely improvised not being in the script itself. Perhaps the most amusing part is his famous death sequence so over-the-top. Screaming “Millie!”, “No!!!”, it a spectacle in itself. And the rolling off of Rutan’s arms was icing to the cake.

Waldbaurer played the young daughter’s Angela & Millie, along with the maid. I loved watching the contrast of a super fun and eternally optimistic actress, but also the rebellious daughter to Rutan.

She embodies the familiar elements of an adolescent perfectly, with an opinionated hippie school girl who curses enough to warrant a soapbox. The real depth of Waldbaurer’s character is how she expresses the hurt of her mother’s betrayal to her father. She lashes out in anger, only to be temporarily satiated with a PB&J sandwich.

Of all the characters, Young has been the unfortunate sideshow victim of other agendas. She acted out the easily flustered Millicent, who comes off as spaghetti so loosely sliding about the furniture. But where Young shines the most is in her portrayal of Laurie, the school teacher girlfriend to Bynane.

What the audience gathers from the foreshadowed description of Laurie is a woman of goodness and civility. We expect a proper lady of humility and simplicity. Young does the exact opposite.

She is condescending in the most passive-aggressive way possible. She looks sweet on the outside, using generosity as a weapon to disarm her adversaries. When she meets resistance, Young is quick to disperse her sadness in the bathroom, regain composure and return with a plan of attack.

Indeed, in a most surprising move, when we thought her affirmation on soul-searching and godliness were of most noble value, Young throws us in a devastating loop of selfish indulgence when she kisses Schwartz.

Too bad the entire act was completely lost because of a competing song number opposite corner. A disappointing moment in blocking history.

Addiction is the word I would use to describe Bynane. He is completely fixated on Rutan throughout the entire show and I would have thought after he finally attained his prize, he’d be satisfied. But no, Bynane becomes so enthralled with his rekindled lover he even casts away poor Young with not a single drop of remorse.

It isn’t until the very end of the play we learn there is something more important to Bynane than Rutan. His acting career. His reputation. After she makes a fool of him on stage, only then is he able to let her go. What an excellent actor!

Some of Bynane’s greatest moments is how he subtly sneaks his movement into the scene while alluring Rutan with words. Inching closer on the rug; sliding his hand up her leg; dragging out a kiss for a couple seconds longer.

The way Bynane handled the crutch handicap was especially challenging and he did a very good job balancing his restricted movement through the dance numbers. My only complaint is the lack of consistency in his Irish accent which came and went. Otherwise, a job well done.

On the subject of crutches, there was one glaringly confusing part to me. How is it a man can go on crutches in the first performance, and be cured the very next day crutch-free? Likewise, how can a woman simply remove her neck brace after leaving the stage?

For aesthetic appeal or otherwise, establishing believability in the world we live in as an audience matters most. There is a bit technical magic as an important component of the production that adds extra layers of believability.

Choosing the right costumes to wear is certainly a challenging task. And for Rutan, there were many. Costume designer Amy Poe had to come up with 3 distinct style for the 3 different plays. With the rehearsal process, she opted for a nice casual appeal of modern day attire where each character managed their unique style.

The men managed neutral shirts, with a vest or overcoat and a pair of slacks and dress shoes. But it was the outfits for Rutan that stood out the most. For the red dress in the first play, it signified infidelity. The green dress, adorned with a golden ornament made for a showstopper at the end of the first act, and carried onward into the offstage apartment. And in the second play we got to see a whore dressed with a tight blue one piece, cut short and a red fur top with platform heels depicting the razzle dazzle of sluttown.

If you are incredibly perceptive you will notice an amazing transformation of the set throughout the play. What begins as a black rehearsal space quickly fills with temporary furniture, and one by one the stage turns into a living breathing house.

The huge reveal is made by set designer Clare Floyd DeVries when all the black curtains are torn down and beautifully painted bookshelf flats appear. The tipping point is the glamorous chandelier placed high above amidst an impressive performance of song and dance by cast and crew alike.

The stage never felt cluttered, nor did any set piece feel out of place. The apartment kitchen and bathroom were transparent and we could easily see what was happening behind closed doors.

Without light, the production would have been a very hard production to see so a big shout out to lighting designer John Leach for keeping the electricity flowing. The majority of the show carried a yellow orange hue with occasional spotlights during intimate moments.

At one point a voiceover announcer introduced the beginning of one play and the lights flickered one after another similar to a circus act about to begin. While a fun idea, it didn’t serve much purpose without something on stage to showcase in between each flicker.

What I was most impressed was how the dirty apartment hues of purple and blue looked. When the director asked to create a dust look in the kitchen, Leach nailed it perfectly.

When you think of the feel of a play, the sound sets the mood and prepares the audience for what is to come. In a joint effort, sound designer David H.M. Lambert and composer Parker Greenwood executed a Jazz-Style approach.

Their opening number was an upbeat piano and brass with lyrics from old time favorite Louis Daniel Armstrong. The melody established the transition between scenes sometimes surprising us with a ballad. At the top of the second act though, the music shifted into the second play with The White Stripes describing the nitty gritty affairs of Detroit life.

Some sound cues I questioned, like laugh lines. Others I wished were included like water running in the background, instead of making Bynane hum. Overall, good job keeping us engaged.

No minor part in itself are the props used throughout the show. Prop designer Megan Beddingfield gave some fun items to the actors including a pipe for Schwartz as the rich father and a neck brace to Rutan when she was injured during fight practice.

My particular favorite was how the apartment was dirtied up with newspapers, a Trix cereal box and Chinese takeout containers.

The play is chalk full of humor perfect for any adults to come watch for entertainment. It carries substance in the content that will make you feel and think about your own life, and the lives of other people. The most compelling offer of this production is the talent so masterfully guided by Director Banks.

I think some of the messages explored in the script open up mature conversations about how we handle intimacy in our personal lives. Some of this may go over the heads of the younger generation without the experience to relate, but it makes for an educational introduction to relationship challenges on and off the stage.

Circle Theatre
August 16 through September 15, 2018
230 West 4th Street, Fort Worth, Texas 76102
For information and Tickets call 817-877-3040 or go to