nytheatre.com review by Ed Malin
January 29, 2011
Stage Kiss has for its logo Botticelli’s Birth of Venus—with a goatee on the goddess. The caption says “love is a many gendered thing.” Stolen Chair has taken this fun mythical tradition and created a racy contemporary blank verse play. Venus slinks around the stage in fishnet stockings and little else, while her brother Neptune wears diving flippers and a Speedo and brandishes a trident with three penises at the end. Local virgins afraid of being played with by these gods hide in the forest, where the real fun begins. The feel of romance is particularly high, and this would be a great play to bring a date to. There is even free wine!
Playwright Kiran Rikhye and Stolen Chair excel at adaptation, so what are they adapting here? The program says “freely inspired by John Lyly’s Gallathea (1588).” Lyly was known (to Shakespeare and a select few who copied him) for popularizing “euphuism,” a witty, mannered, balanced style of writing. It is particularly good for pairs of people hurling insults at each other.
Stage Kiss takes this to a whole different level. Gallathea (played by Andy Phelan) and Phyllida (played by Liz Eckert) are two young maids on a Greek island who are sent by their respective father Puritanus (played by Liza Wade Green) and mother Veneria (played by Noah Schultz) to hide from the lust of Neptune. So that the maids’ maidenheads will remain undetected, the girls are disguised as boys. In one case, a mother tears off something furry from beneath her tunic and pastes it on her daughter’s chin to become a beard. Venus (played by Liza Wade Green when she is not playing Puritanus) still wants to win her bet with Neptune (played by Noah Schultz when he is not playing Veneria) and figures that if any two people fall in love during the play she will come out ahead. Then the two maids meet in the woods. Gallathea is the submissive one in the pair. Just as they start to fall in love with each other as two men, they are exposed for being two women. And then Venus endows them with something maids do not have, so they can live happily ever after.
I love the risks this production takes. The playful gender-swapping is not new, but it is fortunately given an energetic revival through the efforts of the inspired cast. (By the way, Stage Kiss is being revived in repertory along with another Kiran Rikhye play, Kinderspiel, so you may want to see both.) Sarah Riffle’s costumes are essential to the mood, and their revealing nature makes it easier to feel what the characters feel. What does it mean to be a man or a woman after all? It means it is that much harder to be yourself and to find love; that is what I take from Jon Stancato’s non-stop staging. David Bengali’s sets convey the party atmosphere and leave plenty of room for farce. There are blow-up palm trees and a sign which either reads “Forest” or “Not the Forest.” Aviva Meyer’s innovative prop creations include the trident and the beasts of the forest. Daniel Winters’s lighting makes all the above contrasts even funnier. Emily Otto throws in some instrumental versions of songs like “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” between scenes. This is just another touch that shows how universal the story is. Stolen Chair may be reaching back 400+ years to parody Lyly, but Lyly was deftly riffing off Ovid 15 centuries earlier. Thank goodness it is so much fun to revisit this ancient tale.