Producing theater is something akin to surfing. Hard work and talent don't always make for success -- you gotta catch the right wave. Most of the time, shows roll in and out of production with unremarkable regularity and less impact. But once in a while, a tsunami hits. That's a pretty fair description of what Robert Hooker and his Sol Theatre are riding with Stop Kiss, a romantic drama about two women and their unexpected relationship that's a high- water mark for the cheeky Fort Lauderdale troupe and certainly one of the best shows to hit South Florida in a long time.
Sharon Stern (left) and Julia Clearwood: lip to lip, peace to turmoil
Presented through February 15 by the Sol Theatre Project. Call 954-525-6555.
Stop Kiss follows the erratic, erotic journey of one young New Yorker, Callie, a stressed-out traffic reporter who lives a cluttered, modern life in her cluttered, modern apartment. Callie's busy but not happy. Her job is just OK, her social life is just OK, and she maintains a so-so on-again/off-again relationship with George, an actor/waiter she has known since their college days a decade before. But into Callie's routine blunders Sara, a cheerful Midwesterner newly arrived in town to teach elementary school in the Bronx. The two women strike up an odd-couple friendship that slowly, awkwardly moves toward romance, an emotional rip tide that's as frightening as it is irresistible.
Playwright Diana Son has structured her tale of unexpected attraction around a single event -- a kiss. The comedic, charming buildup to this kiss and the powerful, disturbing aftermath are interwoven as alternating story lines, crafted into a rapid-fire sequence of 23 short scenes. This movielike technique, cutting backward and forward in time, sounds like a gimmick but isn't. By following Callie and Sara before and after, each story line gains poignancy and context. We see a relationship in its earliest moments and what happens to that relationship when times get tough indeed. Much of the pre-kiss story focuses on emotional detail, as the relationship between the two women begins as chance meeting and moves through casual friendship toward a deeper attraction that throws both into confusion, both comedic and erotic. The post-kiss counterstory, harrowing and poignant, zeroes in on deeper feelings of identity and isolation.
But were that all there was to this production, you could just read the script and stay at home. If you go with that option, you will miss one effective show, the most impressive production that the plucky Sol Theatre has ever presented. As Callie, Julia Clearwood delivers an incandescent performance that's fiercely honest and totally committed. The role has to be one of the biggest challenges in modern theater. Callie appears in every scene -- the role is way bigger than King Lear -- and has to alternate between the comedic/romantic story line and its gut-wrenching alter plot. Clearwood pulls it all off resoundingly.
She's matched in vitality and emotional punch by Sharon Stern as the vivacious, optimistic Sara, who is the unintended object of Callie's newly discovered affection. The two actresses have a fine rapport in the early scenes, with overlapping, completely natural-sounding dialogue that seems at times like improvisation. This relationship feels real and, even better, alive, as these two characters connect, disconnect, and stumble toward a discovery of what's going on between them. But Stern's finest scene is one in which Sara doesn't speak -- or move -- at all. Yet the emotions raging underneath the surface -- grief, despair, love, and frustration -- all pour forth with real impact.
Another standout is Ford D'Aprix in the supporting role of Callie's slacker lover. D'Aprix brings a dry sense of humor and a full sense of emotional history -- it really feels like these two have known each other for years. The rest of the cast doesn't rise to these standards, but the production sweeps along regardless. This is due in no small part to Hooker's detailed, effective direction. Each of these tiny scenes is staged with exceptional clarity that's a pleasure to behold. Hooker's use of interstitial rock music, heavy on Ani Di Franco, adds a charge of angst and electricity to the stage goings-on.
Stop Kiss is one of those rare theatrical events that reminds you why theater has a power that no other art form can touch. This show isn't perfect, its production values are limited, and one could dig out any number of minor flaws. But the emotional momentum of this show is unstoppable. It draws you along from one brief scene to the next and doesn't let up until the whole thing is over. What you get for your ticket is a compelling, affecting story and characters that linger in the memory well after you leave the theater. Shows that pack this kind of wallop don't come around very often, folks, and when one does, you really ought to get over to the theater and ride it in. Surf's up, dudes.