Last week I saw two shows in Seattle that I had great trepidation about: Stop Kiss at the Seattle Repertory Theatre and Martin Guerre at the 5th Avenue Theatre. The day I went to see Stop Kiss was one of those hell days where everything that can go wrong did, and I nearly did not go. I just was not up to seeing a play centered around a gay bashing, and Stop Kiss just screamed 'ultra-intense-gay-play-with-an-important-message' to me and the thought of sitting through that after a day fraught with anguish did not thrill me one bit.
Luckily, Stop Kiss's heart is not its center. The play traces two stories, or rather timelines: the events leading up to the first kiss between two women and the fallout from the unprovoked attack that the kiss engineered. These two threads are skillfully interwoven by playwright Diana Son, who has described Stop Kiss as her first "grownup play." In a writing style that can best be described as David Mamet writing an episode of Ally McBeal, she illustrates how our lives change, in both subtle and dramatic ways, when we have found the person who completes us.
Amy Cronise plays Callie, an eleven-year veteran of New York City's streets, who is coasting through her life. She is a radio traffic reporter (a job she got through the uncle of a boyfriend) providing traffic notices which have no relation to her life, nor the lives of any of her friends, since nobody she knows owns a car. Her love life is centered around a relationship of convenience with her friend George (played by David Scully), which is based solely on sexual availability. Upon meeting Sara, winningly played by Jodi Somers, a friend of a friend who has just moved to New York, she starts breaking through the shell of complacency and non-involvement that has enveloped her life.
The show runs 90 minutes without an intermission, and is performed at breakneck speed, with lightning fast changes between timelines (helped in no small part by Rick Paulsen's excellent lighting design). While this helps the play cover more territory than most shows go through in twice the time, it could relax a bit, especially in the beginning when Amy Cronise (Callie) is a bit too frantic, even by New York standards. Once she made her first incredible shift between threads, she relaxed into the part and the moments between her and Sara (Jodi Somers) were truly wonderful.
Stop Kiss illustrates once again how the strongest plays are coming not from Broadway (and its rather lackadaisical British imports) but from Off-Broadway. It is an extremely moving, hysterical, and most importantly truthful look at relationships and how our lives can change through one moment, or even one kiss. I highly recommend this play, which runs through March 4th at The Seattle Rep. For tickets, call the box office at (206) 443-2222 and for more information visit www.seattlerep.org.
I wish I could say the same about the second show, Martin Guerre, which was one of the most frustrating shows I have ever had the misfortune to see. As I mentioned, I had some trepidation about seeing Martin Guerre, which stemmed from my receiving the original CD as a gift. It took me three attempts to get through it once, after which I could not recall a single song. Since Martin Guerre has gone through as many alterations and versions as The Scarlet Pimpernel, I figured I would give it the benefit of the doubt, go in with an open mind, and hopefully be pleasantly surprised, as I was with Jekyll and Hyde a few months earlier.
Unfortunately, lightening did not strike twice. Part of the problem may be that Seattle has had all three Shonberg/Boublil shows pass through in as many months, and they came in order of writing. Seeing Les Miserables, Miss Saigon and Martin Guerre in a row highlights not only the similarities between the shows, especially in regards to music, but also displays how the authors are moving backwards rather than forwards in their craft, with Les Miserables being the pinnacle of their work. Martin Guerre is the first of their shows not to be based on an existing novel, but upon an actual court case which occurred in Artigat in 1560. Bertrande de Rols had claimed that the man who had been living as her husband for three years was not Martin Guerre, but an impostor. She claimed to have recently discovered that the man she thought was her husband, who had left her 12 years earlier, was in fact a man named Arnaud du Thil. As the 'imposter' knew every detail of Martin's past, the high court was about to rule in the man's favor, when the real Martin Guerre returned after a stint as a mercenary for Spain. Thus, the court condemned Arnaud to be burned, so that his memory would be effaced forever.
Instead, the story lived on for over five centuries and evolved to reflect the values of whatever age in which it was retold. Originally, poets set the story into verse as a cautionary tale; the philosopher Leibniz used the trio to illustrate the difficulty of determining individuality. In the 17th century, the evil of deception became its thrust, as stories of false kings, prophets and messiahs were popular. Up until the 18th century, the story centered upon the wickedness of Arnaud, with Bertrande being an innocent dupe. In 1772, she started to emerge as an agent in the deception, and by the mid-20th century, she started to be portrayed as a woman in a loveless marriage, who finds happiness with the man who takes her husband's place.
The musical Martin Guerre firmly sets up Arnaud as a man who gets caught up in village hysteria and becomes the man they want him to be. In the process, he finds the love and acceptance he has always desired, especially with Bertrande, who is aware of the deception from the start. The show is concerned with how long they will get away with the lie, rather than the question of 'is he or isn't he Martin Guerre.'
If the writers had stuck with this theme, perhaps they could have written a compelling musical, but Boublil and Schonburg, seem to need to have a war serve as a backdrop for every one of their shows. Since the story did not have one originally, the events have been transported to the end of the 16th century, when a religious war broke out between Catholics and Protestants. This adds nothing to the story but confusion and misplaced intensity. One of Les Miserables' great strengths is that it, like Sweeney Todd, knew how to balance intense dramatic moments with comic scenes: it is no coincidence that scenes with the Thenardiers follow every intense moment in Les Mis. Audiences need moments of downtime to relax and process intense events, and having such moments in a show allows it to build to even higher heights. Martin Guerre literally begins with a bang and does not let up. Every song, every emotion, every moment is played full out, and it gets very tiring: imagine sitting through two and a half hours of "Up the Barricade" and you will get a good feel for the show.
It is also doesn't help that Martin Guerre is musically (as well as visually), a reproduction of Les Miserables. The recitative and group numbers are distractingly similar to songs in Les Mis. Bertrande's big number, "How Many Tears," for instance, is not only is reminiscent of "I Dreamed a Dream," but is even blocked the same and comes roughly at the same point in the show.
The two characters which stand out in Martin Guerre, partly because they had the only subtle scenes, partly because they were played by very good actors and singers, are Benoit (played by Michael Arnold) and Judge Coras (played by D.C. Anderson). Benoit, being the town's fool, provides the only scene of levity in the show, a love song to his beloved scarecrow, Louison. He also provides the only moments of introspection (at a refreshingly low volume level) in his scene before the Judge, and the only real emotional moment, when he mourns the destruction of Louison. When the only true emotional connection in a show is due to the 'death' of a wooden character, you know something is wrong. D.C. Anderson as the Judge not only said the things that I had been thinking the entire show (that the town is composed of fools, and that this was the stupidest court cast he had ever had to endure), but his rich baritone was a breath of fresh air from the belted tenor voices that comprised the rest of the evening.
Usually, on the rare instances that I do not like a show, I can at least understand what others see in it. In this instance, I am sorry to say that I can not find any redeeming qualities to Martin Guerre; even an incredible cast does nothing but make me all the more frustrated that they were wasted on such a poor show. The producer, Cameron Macintosh, recently announced that Martin Guerre will not be going to Broadway as planned due to a shortage of acceptable theaters. While I question his official reason, I firmly applaud his action, and pray that he and the writers go back to their masterpiece, Les Miserables, and relearn the lessons that they have forgotten.
Martin Guerre plays next in Los Angeles. For ticket information, call (206) 292-ARTS (2787) or visit the box office.