Sometimes life is like a fairy tale. Not the Teletubbies kind, the Grimm kind. Things are humming along really well, then blam! Something mysterious strikes out of the blue and your sweet reality is suddenly transformed into a nightmare. That pretty much sums it up for Peter Hoskins, the central character in Craig Lucas' Prelude to a Kiss, the 1990s New York City hit that is enjoying a stylish revival at the Shores Performing Arts Theatre.
Poor Peter's wild tale of woe begins at a loud Manhattan party thrown by his friend Taylor. There, Peter meets lovely Rita, Taylor's wacky neighbor from across the hall. Rita is a brainy, edgy, restless gal whose personality juggles equal parts of cheery good humor and debilitating pessimism. Peter -- a square, ordinary kinda guy -- is wowed, and somehow so is she. When he drops by the bar she's tending, she has a drink with him, and next thing you know, they are back at her place and between the sheets. Soon, Peter is meeting her parents in Jersey as they plan for a wedding.
All goes well until the wedding reception, when a strange old man whom nobody knows asks to kiss the bride. When Rita complies, something really weird happens. Peter doesn't notice anything at first; he and Rita take off for their honeymoon in Jamaica, but she seems changed. She no longer drinks, uses odd turns of phrase, and can't remember names and places from her past. And Peter begins to suspect that Rita is not the girl he fell in love with. What he discovers is that Rita is not at heart a girl at all. Somehow in that kiss, Rita and the Old Man swapped identities. Peter realizes that what he truly loves about Rita has left her body and what -- or who -- has taken her place is not her real essence. When his pursuit of the real Rita leads him to the Old Man, he finds his love trapped inside the frail, failing form of the aging codger.
Sometimes a story's concept is so perfect, it resonates like a tuning fork. That's the case with Prelude to a Kiss. Lucas' fantastical conceit allows him to explore a range of life issues, some common, some profound: the fear of not really knowing your partner, the nature of love, the nature of identity, the inability to understand lives lived by others. Rita begins to learn firsthand what the elderly face, struggling with bodies that can't keep up with the mind's expectations. And the Old Man's sudden new youthful lease on life, a commonly held dream of the aged, has a bittersweet side he never anticipated.
The Shores production is orchestrated with panache by its artistic director, Rich Simone, who designed the set and lights as well as staged the show. His sophisticated visual skills are apparent throughout. Using a series of shifting panels and walls with rectangular patterns and a gorgeous lighting plot, Simone conjures up the endless stream of settings with ease -- apartments, a bar, a resort, a starry night. But while his staging is fluid and clean, it lacks a certain momentum, floating along steadily when it should be swooping and soaring.
Part of the problem lies with the central role of Peter, who must drive the story in a series of narrative monologues in between the main scenes. Paul Lasa is quite effective as the heartsick Peter, but the handsome, likable young actor has not yet acquired the stage presence or experience to carry a show on his back, as he must do here. The rest of the ensemble, which has less burdensome tasks, fares better. Autumn Horne brings her offbeat, willowy charm to Rita while Bill Yule has a field day as the Old Man. The supporting cast is strong, especially Dave Corey in a sly turn as Rita's dentist dad, who is unable to detect any difference in his daughter despite her sudden personality change.
As is often the case, this production has implications off-stage as well as on. Just like this play, this company is amid a major transformation -- busy renovating its former movie-theater home, finding a strong audience base, and (it's hoped) turning this struggle into something with a happy ending. So far, the jury is out. The internals of this company appear to be working. Simone has a clear vision of his theater's mandate as a revival house of modern American plays and musicals from 1975 onward. This strategy has already produced Prelude, The Rocky Horror Show, and Crimes of the Heart. The future might bode... what? Lanford Wilson, August Wilson, Caryl Churchill, Sam Shepard? Sounds good.
But maybe not good enough. While the Shores Performing Arts Center has ambitious plans and dedicated talent to implement them, the company is up against the most difficult challenge live theater faces: marketing. How do you fill those seats when there's barely enough cash to pay the phone bill? Word of mouth helps, and if Prelude is any indication, this will surely be good. But word of mouth won't do the trick on its own, and the costs of advertising are prohibitive. Press coverage such as this plays a part, but that comes and goes. What to do?
Part of the answer should lie in community action. Study after study has shown conclusively that support for the performing arts adds a geometric benefit to surrounding businesses. It certainly appears that "downtown" Miami Shores could use some of this kind of boost. While the theater had trouble filling its auditorium on the night I attended, the nearby café did not have a single customer, and other businesses looked equally forlorn. What if community leaders made a push to support the arts as an economic strategy? What if theater supporters organized to patronize businesses that advertise with and underwrite theater companies? And what if the Shores and other companies -- and the Theatre League of South Florida -- began pitching themselves as assets, not basket cases? Those needing help are by definition helpless. Nobody wants to hear the pleas of the helpless these days. Like Prelude to a Kiss, the best strategy may be to see the other person's point of view. And then make a firm offer, rather than a tearful plea.
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