Starting Gate charms with quirky
To get away with telling a modern fairy tale for grown-ups, a director must persuade audiences to invest in its magical conceit. Under the direction of Casey Radmann, brave little Starting Gate Productions engages suspension of disbelief at the outset and charms audiences with Craig Lucas' witty, intelligent and thoroughly quirky romantic comedy, Prelude To A Kiss.
The play's nine-member cast walk on stage and assume frozen attitudes, as though in a photograph. A chunky fairy in the form of hip Rebecca Van Eaton looks at each and chooses a pretty young woman, Rita, and a good-looking young man, Peter. She tosses glitter-dust over each, and we're in on the notion.
They fall in love, as they are destined to, and get married, but "the happily ever after" bit gets delayed when the same fairy intercedes again. An unknown, elderly man asks radiant Rita for a kiss on her wedding day and everything changes. It would spoil the fun to tell much more, but the mind-twisting mystery that Peter must solve to re-find happiness has deeper undertones than the odd-ball fun unfolding on stage: true love seeks out the person within, the person beyond the wrapping of physical beauty.
In Crystal Rose Thomas' Rita, beauty and personality happily coincide. Rita is both a free-spirit and an anxious insomniac who fears immanent disaster in a nuclear world. She's a socialist, who aspires to be a graphic designer, but she works as a bartender. Thomas captures fragile, yet free-wheeling Rita. Without giving the game away, Rita changes on honeymoon. She becomes materialistic, predictable and sentimental, calling her new husband, "Puppy, Puppy." Thomas depends mostly on language to make the shift, where a more marked combination of attitude and body language might be stronger.
Ryan Parker Knox plays Peter with nerdy awkwardness when they first meet. He's the head of the microfiche department for a publisher of science journals, a straight forward and practical chap. Knox engages the audience in Peter's sense of wonder at this new relationship with Rita and then in his yearning for her during her apparent absence. He has amusing moments when he confides directly with the audience. Knox nails Peter's confused tenderness towards the Old Man, who is convincingly played by Robert Larsen.
Rita and Peter's rapid courtship is original, funny and captivating, and the energy that zings between Thomas and Knox gilds their relationship with authenticity.
Director Radmann has a good ear for humor. Her actors hesitations and delivery are timed just right to draw laughter, which is well exemplified in Jim Pound's Dr. Boyle, Rita's obnoxious father and Jane Hammill's Mrs. Boyle. Andy Babinski, Tina Frederickson and James Thomas round out the cast.
Starting Gate gives Prelude a bare-bones playing - no fancy production values here. Amanda Brown's set and single prop are basic and versatile. Lighting by Carl Schoenborn was uneven on opening night, sometimes coming late on cues. But no matter. Radmann depends on strong casting and acting to propel this fairy tale through its highly original paces, and I fell under its spell.
Prelude To A Kiss March 4 - 26, 2005. Thursdays - Sundays 7:30 p.m. Tickets $18. Starting Gate Productions, at the Loading Dock Theater, 509, Sibley Street, St. Paul. Call 651-645-3503, or www.startinggate.org.