I live to spoil things. Try me. – XOXO, Miss Jaye
I’ve really been neglecting my theatre-reviewing duties the last year or so (I blame my busy travel schedule) and so when I had a free night to check out the Fire Hall Theatre’s latest production, Prelude to a Kiss, I was determined to go, even if it was the second to last night. I even decided to bring Linda, the nighttime janitorial staff for Champagne Dreams Productions, as my theatre buddy – you can see her recorded-live, after the show review HERE. We had so much fun that “Linda’s Late Night Reviews” are probably going to become a regular thing whenever I check out a new show – stay tuned!
But on to this show. Prelude to a Kiss, written by Craig Lucas and directed by Fire Hall regular Patrick Pearson and assisted by Kirsten Dauphinais, was originally produced in the late 1980s and has been interpreted by some as a sort of commentary on the AIDS epidemic and what it means to keep love alive when the body you once loved deteriorates. More on that further down; for now, let’s talk a bit more about the plot and the cast.
Robert Simon leads as Peter, an awkward young man whose yawn-inspiring job as a microfiche digitizer stands in contrast to his background: after living with both of his divorced parents and their new spouses (who are described in the script in rather unbelievable Grimms-esque ways), at 16 he decides to take himself to Amsterdam and forge a new life. Lots of details about his life are thrown in haphazardly – his favorite childhood food, a couple of Dutch quotes – that are used later to further the plot but serve to make the exposition feel a bit clumsy. At a party (filled with some cringey 80s fashions – costumer Mare Thompson certainly has an eye for the period!), Peter meets Rita (newcomer Leslie Lekatz), a rather pessimistic insomniac who despite the flailing conversation manages to ignite a spark in him that leads him to seek her out at work the next day. What in today’s parlance might border on stalking, his actions ignite a flame within Rita and the two begin a rather quirky romance, talking about life and politics, sharing fantasies and discussing Freud’s case histories. Slowly, Peter’s life begins to merge with Rita’s until he is basically living in her apartment and asks her to marry him. He’s surprised and more than a little nervous when she agrees, but the two begin planning and go to meet Rita’s parents.
Doctor and Mrs. Boyle (Patrick DeMars and Theresa Knox) are a quirky couple – he’s all bluster and frustration while she’s unflappably cheerful if a bit dim – but they take to the young couple quickly; when Peter expresses some doubts to Dr. Boyle, the older man passes them off as the type of changes that all people go through as they get older and settle into a relationship. It’s clear pretty on that while her parents may have their own loving qualities, they aren’t particularly interested in the minutiae of their daughter’s life. Neither is Peter’s friend and co-worker Taylor (Andrew Sailer), a rather throwaway character who exists to provide…insight? Maybe? We’re not really sure what he’s doing in the play exactly, except to occasion the meeting between Peter and Rita and be the butt of a couple “aging virgin” jokes. Sailer gives a good effort at the material he’s got, but Lucas clearly didn’t do the character any favors in the writing room.
When the wedding rolls around, the couple is nervous but excited and the characters are joined by a couple of oddball relatives: Aunt Dorothy (Tina Wilkening) and a mutton-chopped Uncle Fred (Dave Dauphinais). They have a couple of zingers and provide a little physical comedy, but once again we see two talented actors trying to milk some life out characters that the playwright clearly treats as set-dressing. During the festivities, an Old Man (Rob Howard) appears and asks to kiss the bride; when he does, the two souls switch bodies and suddenly Rita, now in the body of the old man, is ushered out while the old man settles in to his newer, younger body. The two leave for their Jamaican honeymoon, where they encounter perhaps the only white waiter that country has to offer (Dave Kary), but it isn’t long before Peter begins to suspect that his new wife isn’t exactly the woman he married. That the old man seems unbothered by all of the newlywed sexy time provides a little winking moment of queerness that I think could have been further explored, but passes by as Peter starts investigating the situation, trying to ascertain the fate of his lady love.
The second act has a rather predictable trajectory: Peter seeks out the old man and discovers that he is now inhabited by the soul of Rita. Their interactions are familiar but the two actors could have injected a little more intimacy into those initial conversations – Rita’s co-worker Tami (Meg McGuire) is seen reacting to their reunion, and much of her “facial journey” is wasted on a scene that doesn’t have the emotional familiarity or physical flirtation to support it. And much of that disconnect is related to the situation itself: Peter’s conflict between the soul of the woman he loves and the body she now inhabits. He still loves her, and is relieved to re-establish their connection, but he finds himself put off by her new outward appearance. This is where the metaphor about AIDS feels a little reductive, and I think time and distance from that historical context actually does the play some favors: to see the old man’s body as a metaphor for the changes a lover or spouse might go through because of AIDS does more, I think, to further stigmatize those affected by the disease. To place it outside of that context, the moments shared between the actors take on a more universal quality, as if we are merely reflecting on life and the passage of time. Sometimes the specifics can derail the message. The exchange becomes even more poignant when Peter learns in a conversation with the old man’s daughter Leah (Brooke Pesch) that he has only months to live.
As you might expect, though he comes to appreciate having his love back in his life and even goes so far as to kiss him briefly (the play all but takes out a billboard on Demers to announce that it’s going to happen, but somehow the audience still wasn’t prepared for it – ahh, small town ignorance, you’re never far away! Bravo to the actors for committing to the scene), the play couldn’t end without reuniting the young lovers in their “appropriate” bodies. Both the old man and Rita have learned to appreciate life more: Rita because she had the experience of living in a withering body, facing the possible end of her life and realizing what she’s been wasting by focusing on the potential disasters of life, and the old man – well, he got to party in Jamaica and get some good dick, so he toddles off ready to face his maker. The ending is rather disappointing – Lucas lazily lobs out a few minor red herrings (maybe the switch is magical? maybe it has something to do with Peter’s time in Amsterdam?) but in the end, the only explanation is that they switched place because they both “really wanted it.” The old man wanted to have a chance to do it all over, to take better care of himself and appreciate life (though considering that he made it to his advanced age eating chicken skin and drinking heavily, I’m not sure exactly what he’s planning to accomplish by now denying himself all of those pleasures), and Rita wanted to be at the end of it, past all of the potential pitfalls and knowing how everything turns out. Once they both speak the lesson they’ve learned out loud, the thunder returns and the souls are returned to their proper places.
There are some really beautiful moments in the show. When Peter is plotting with Mrs. Boyle to arrange a meeting between him and Rita, she tells him that Rita has changed because that’s what people do: they grow and they change, and they aren’t the people you used to know. Mrs. Boyle to this point has been a bit of a caricature, and Knox uses this scene to bring some depth and sweetness to the character. Howard’s old man has some moments reflecting on what it’s like to be facing death, and to face the deaths of those you love, that are really moving. Simon and Lekatz have their softer moments as well, but they shone more in the humorous sections: Simon’s inner monologues while realizing that his wife is literally not the woman he married were some of his best, and Lekatz’s strongest scenes were playing quirky and kittenish in their early courtship. These moments add up to an enjoyable show, but I couldn’t help leaving feeling like Craig Lucas didn’t do most of his characters any favors, treating them more as plot movers than dynamic human people.
There is one final night to see this show down at the Fire Hall Theatre, tonight (Feb 18) at 7:30 pm, and I recommend that you call for tickets as closing weekends tend to feature more than a few sellout crowds! Tickets are $15 for adults, $12 for students, seniors, and military. Sorry, if you’re a senior who recently kissed your way into a 20-something body, you’ll have to pay full price.
Tags: AIDS, Andrew Sailer, Brooke Pesch, Champagne Dreams Productions, community theatre, Craig Lucas, Dave Dauphinais, Dave Kary, drag art, drag king, drag performance, drag queen, drag show, drag troupe, Duke Ellington, Fire Hall Theater, Fire Hall Theatre, Firehall Theater, Firehall Theatre, Greater Grand Forks Community Theater, Greater Grand Forks Community Theatre, Janessa, Janessa J, Janessa J Champagne, Janessa Jaye, Janessa Jaye Champagne, Kirsten Dauphinais, Kiss, Leslie Lekatz, love, love story, Mare Thompson, Meg McGuire, Miss Jaye, Pat DeMars, Pat Mars, Patrick DeMars, Patrick Pearson, Prelude to a Kiss, Rob Howard, Robert Simon, Same Sex Kiss, Theresa Knox, Tina Wilkening, World of Champagne