Aeneid Theater Company’s Stage Kiss is an utter delight

“If you’re an actress, you’re either Juliet or Lady Macbeth. There’s really nothing in between,” declared the leading lady of Stage Kiss, Sarah Ruhl’s enduring romantic comedy about what happens when two actors share a real kiss.

The dynamic Lizzy Ryland, a sophomore majoring in theatre, stars opposite Demetri Bouzos, a freshman majoring in theatre, as She and He, two ex-lovers (and actors) who get cast alongside each other to play ex-lovers that get back together. The pair quickly gets tangled in the magic of their stage romance, resulting in necessary, cathartic realizations about their respective adult lives and the nature of love itself.

At the heart of Stage Kiss is the multifaceted nature of the theater. Aeneid Theater Company’s  production exposes the audience to everything that occurs from that first awkward audition to the backstage relief after opening night. Perhaps the most captivating detail of the play inside Stage Kiss was its director, who was played by the scene-stealing sophomore theatre major Jack Eletto. Eletto was perfectly gracious in the comical, pretentious, eyes-half-closed manner of directors. At the start of their first rehearsal, he walks over to the coffee table and tosses a bag of sugar into his mouth. When She, still hesitant about sharing a kiss with He, suggests a slap before the kiss, the director purrs: “Try it!” The agent of the couple’s romance, the director watches in discomfort as their kiss turns from a dreaded middle-school encounter to a prom night make-out sequence.

The play’s understudy, Kevin, played by freshman economics and mathematics major Hank Funderburk, is thrown in when He catches a stomach bug and injures his ankle. The kiss that ensues between Kevin and She underscores the difference between a stage kiss and a real kiss: Kevin approaches She with his jaw unlocked completely, as if ready to bite a tree in half.

“What a strange job we have, to kiss strangers and make it look like we know each other,” Funderburk chuckled nervously. In the second act, Funderburk plays She’s pimp, while she plays a Brooklyn whore in the director’s new play; the hilarity of watching him march onto set in a leopard print vest, a thick chain and gold-plated gun simply could not go without mention.

Theatre majors freshman Demetri Bouzos and sophomore Lizzy Ryland star in Stage Kiss. Photo courtesy of Michael Gerry 

Most stirringly, our hero and heroine’s voices harmonized so perfectly in speech that you would think you were watching a musical. Watching the couple grapple with the reality of their script, seaming in and out of their character’s feelings and into their own, shed light on a very real and very human struggle to give up on the idea of blockbuster-romance for real love. After all, just as their stage personas, the two had other commitments waiting beyond the stage: She had a husband and a daughter, He had a girlfriend.

As Stage Kiss director Jack McCarthy, a junior majoring in theatre and business administration, articulated, “It’s a world where theatre imitates life as much as life imitates theatre, leaving us to wonder which world is the ghost of the other.”

Ryland’s character mirrors the sentiment after opening night, giggling on a couch backstage with her lover: “When I kissed you just now did it feel like an act or a person kissing a person?” she asks.

As their affair continues, fueled by another play and an “ignorance is bliss” outlook, a final argument between the couple — punctuated by the blocking of a stage fight — ends in She’s realization that, “you can have a station wagon and an interesting life.” For a brief moment of silence, the show’s comedy is diluted by tragedy.

For its portrayal of human emotional pitfalls, Stage Kiss ends on a perfect, bittersweet note: There is an end and a new beginning that feels like a real resolution. Perhaps most importantly, the resolution acknowledges the feelings of those that make up the collateral damage of torrid love affairs.

“The play explores how when we love, we allow for our life to include something beyond ourselves,” McCarthy said.