By Ted Hoover
Pittsburgh Current Theater Critic
I’m always ready to applaud any theater taking the risky step of stepping outside their comfort zone and presenting work designed to challenge their audience. When the company in question is a community or summer theater I even more impressed … because these are the venues which are going to keep the art form alive.
Big budget touring behemoths landing in town can be, no question, entertaining. But when you consider the price of a ticket, the cost of parking, what you’re paying the sitter … it’s a Special Event!, rather than just a night of fun.
Stage Kiss continues through August 24. South Park Theatre, South Park. 412/831-8552. www.southparktheatre.com
It’s the small companies catering to very local audiences giving me hope. If theater is going to survive (and there’s no guarantee that it will) it’ll be because people, when deciding their entertain options for the evening, might include whatever’s showing at the local theater along with the megaplex film palace or streaming binge series.
South Park Theatre’s been tucked away on the grounds of Allegheny County’s South Park for a few decades presenting typical light summery theater fare. (Full disclosure – a few lifetimes ago I used to direct there.) South Park caters to a decidedly suburban, shall we say?, mature audience looking for a pleasant evening in a verdant setting.
Most of South Park’s season this summer supplies exactly that – but they’re taking a very big risk slipping in Stage Kiss by Sarah Ruhl.
You might know Ruhl as the author of In the Next Room, (or The Vibrator Play) about Victorian women discovering orgasms and vibrators. You’re not going to see that anytime soon on local summer stages, but Stage Kiss, written in 2011 immediately after Next Room, could possibly stand a chance.
It’s a backstage comedy about a man and a women, former lovers – known only as She and He – who end up getting cast as lovers some time later in a new production. In addition to the rekindling of old flames, each has a propensity to fall in love with their co-stars. And that’s a problem for He’s current girlfriend and She’s husband and daughter.
Infidelity (or rather the threat of it) is a staple in summer theater, but Ruhl pushes it much further with actual desertion and strong language far, far, far out of the South Park Theater norm. And I’m very happy to report that there was not one walk out the night I saw the show. (But then I guess social media’s turned all of us into trash.)
I wish I could say that the play meets the level of the challenge it presents, but I can’t. While there are several laugh out loud lines, Ruhl’s logic isn’t very cohesive and her characters really never dip below the surface of self-reflection or insight.
But director Allison M. Weakland keeps the play chugging along and gives her cast plenty of room to play. Diana Ifft is She and while it’s been a few years since I’ve seen her onstage, this performance makes me realize how much I’ve missed her. Ifft is an actress of wide ability and a sharp intelligence and gets the opportunity to display both.
Helga Terre is the play-within-the-play’s wacky director and while the character – as written by Ruhl – feels as though she’s been transplanted from an entirely different theatrical universe, Terre finds lots of chances to score several of the show’s biggest laughs.
Keith Cecotti, Steve Bruno and Arjun Kumar, as the men she must navigate, are woefully underwritten but each finds playable moments. Danette Marie Levers and Rachel Carey, also seemingly lifted from yet another different play, give the production a boost and Kathy Hawk manages to wring laughs from a no-line walk-on role.
South Park tests the waters a bit with Stage Kiss and I hope that exploration continues.