The beloved Sol Theatre is long gone now, but a band of dramatists called Infinite Abyss Productions is operating out of its erstwhile digs — for this month, at least. Sol was long Florida's funkiest, chillest theater, with a performance space at Empire Stage in Fort Lauderdale that was magical and meditative and somehow participatory. Simply entering the playhouse was like experiencing the first tingle of some mellow, warming psychedelic. Bathed in soft orange light, you'd cast your eyes about at bits of vaguely Southwestern statuary and stare at the big glass-and-plaster mural of a sun that covered the southeastern wall. Once you'd adjusted to the vibes, you poured yourself some wine and stepped up to the ticket counter, which looked like a wet bar in an adobe. Then you strolled down a short hallway, past the big picture of a pot-smoking Mona Lisa. To enter the tiny auditorium, you'd have to step across the far downstage corner of stage left. Then you took a seat on a chair or a barstool or a couch, depending on what was available. The space was so intimate that people would sometimes talk back to the characters, seeming not to realize they were doing anything weird. The connection between ritual and theater is not a subtle one, but with the possible exceptions of Square Peg and Mad Cat, no SoFla theater ever dramatized it the way Sol could, simply by being itself.
When Sol's executive artistic director, Robert Hooker, packed up last year and headed north to spend time with his parents, South Florida's critical establishment was not happy. An essential, enriching element of our local theater was disappearing. With Hooker gone, who would claim that special space he and his band of loyal Solsters had spent almost a decade creating?
Well, I'm not sure the question's quite settled yet, but I hope Infinite Abyss keeps doing work there. The brainchild of ex-Solsters Erynn Dalton and Jeffrey D. Holmes, Infinite Abyss seems able to promulgate Sol's artistic ethos with almost perfect fidelity. In its first production, Diana Son's Stop Kiss, all of Sol's essential elements were right there — the intimacy, the meditation, the novelty, the immersion. This production is so thoroughly good that I almost feel like calling its last scene "holy."
Stop Kiss, written by Diana Son. Directed by Jeffrey D. Holmes. Presented through April 25 at Empire Stage,1140 N. Flagler Drive, Fort Lauderdale.Call 954-678-1496, or click here.
And it could have been so bad. My gosh, if Holmes had decided to emphasize the play's political aspect, it could have been an utter disaster. Stop Kiss is a nonlinear play following the developing lesbian relationship between two young women in Manhattan. Callie (Monica Garcia) has lived there a long time and is your average neurotic urban depressive — attitudinal but shy, smart but made insecure by years of treading water. Sara (Danielle Tabino) is almost her opposite — new to the city, utterly lacking in street smarts, but vivacious and afraid of nothing. When they meet, their chemistry isn't immediate, but it does come along quickly. The actresses project a kind of shy curiosity about each other: They seem to be circling, sniffing. Their nostrils almost flare.
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That's the first scene. The second finds Callie, months later, in what I think is supposed to be a hospital room, being grilled by a detective (Manuel Enrique) about a savage beating that Callie and Sara have received at the hands of a stranger on Bleecker Street that has left Sara in a coma. For some reason, Callie refuses to acknowledge to the police officer that the incident was a gay-bashing, and the detective is suspicious.
Thank you, Jesus, that Stop Kiss isn't a play about gay-bashing. In fact, it's almost completely apolitical. In Abyss' hands, this is a play about two people forming a relationship, and that process is articulated gorgeously, almost perfectly, onstage. If there's a problem with Stop Kiss, it's in the obstacles thrown up to keep the process interesting. To wit: When the first hospital scene ends, the play reverts to another time, some months earlier, shortly after Callie and Sara first met. As the play bounces around — from Sara and Callie's courtship to the grim weeks after the beating — we learn that Sara and Callie were not only unable to discuss their feelings of mutual attraction but that it took them months to even admit to being bicurious. (Both had had long, previous relationships with men.) Though written in 1998, Stop Kiss has been updated by Infinite Abyss to include references to Facebook and the onstage appearance of an iPhone. But moving the setting to the present day creates a slight problem of implausibility: I have a hard time believing that today's young New Yorkers — one of whom works in media, for Chrissakes — are going to giggle like 8-year-olds in sex ed the moment somebody mentions same-sex attraction. If you're young and hip in The City nowadays — or even in this city — and friends with the kinds of people with whom Callie and Sara associate, bicuriosity is a badge of honor. Even those who don't feel it are likely to fake it.
We meet only one of Callie and Sara's friends, by the way — but the effortless, affable performance of the actor portraying him (ex-Solster Todd Bruno) gives us a warming sense of the people we're dealing with. These are good folks, caring and unpretentious. Bruno's portrayal meshes perfectly with those of Tabino and Garcia: All three turn in naturalistic, casual performances that don't look like "acting" at all. Garcia in particular seems drawn from life — a cluttered, rich, and infinitely textured life at that. Grab a front-row seat and watch her closely: You can see years of thoughts and sadnesses and joys stamped indelibly onto the cast of her face, and she seems to be wrestling with them and weighing them with every line.
The Bleecker Street beating is never revealed onstage — all we see came either before or after. And even though the play's ultimate scene is very much in the "before" category — leaving audiences to wonder what will happen to this new couple in the long run — Stop Kiss concludes on what feels like a moment of profound uplift. This is important, I think, especially in a play as intimate as Stop Kiss and produced with such careful attention to the textures of everyday moments and conversations. Even if we know, as the characters cannot, what terrible thing is coming, we can give ourselves over to that lovely moment. I think Stop Kiss is about living in those moments. Onstage at the old Sol, it demonstrates how richly they may be mined.