The New York Times
August 11, 2011
Sam – the piano player who stirred up painful memories by singing “As Time Goes By” in “Casablanca” – might disagree. But in the theater, as in life, a kiss is hardly just a kiss. Whether bestowed on the lips, the cheek, the hand or any other part of the anatomy, the simple application of the lips to someone else’s body can illuminate all sorts of different, and often contradictory, feelings.
I was recently reminded of the theatrical power of the kiss when I saw the Sydney Theater Company’s superb visiting production of “Uncle Vanya” at the Kennedy Center in Washington. Directed with genius by Tamas Ascher, this inventively visceral interpretation is filled with instances of physical contact in which affection and anger, attraction and repulsion seem to exist in uneasy simultaneity. This is the world of Chekhov, after all, where emotions are paralyzingly ambivalent.
Mr. Ascher and his cast achieve wonders with simple, heartbreakingly clumsy handshakes and hugs. But it’s the kisses shared by Cate Blanchett (as the unhappily married Yelena) and Hugo Weaving (as Astrov, the alcoholic country doctor) that I can’t stop thinking about, particularly in the final act.
Ms. Blanchett’s Yelena has hitherto done her best to conduct herself like a polished trophy wife to the much older professor who is her husband (played by John Bell).
At the particular moment I’m thinking of, Yelena is leaving the country house where she has met – and more or less acknowledged her deep attraction to – the idealistic doctor. Now she is ready to make a dignified departure, with a cool handshake with a man she will never see again. Then again, what the hell? She agrees to kiss him goodbye. She tosses her purse onto the sofa (as a vigilant fashion plate should) and leans into a kiss. Their lips almost meet, but then she turns her head and the image becomes absurd. You are acutely conscious of those two mouths that didn’t connect. They seem almost to hover grotesquely on their own, like lips from a Surrealist painting.
But there’s more. Yelena and Astrov kiss again, abruptly – and fully – and it’s like two planets colliding. Ms. Blanchett and Mr. Weaving tumble through the room, limbs flailing, like a single runaway vehicle, falling apart as it hurtles forward. Ms. Blanchett winds up on the floor, alone. And I felt the humor, heroism and pure loneliness of love according to Chekhov as I never had before.
A beautifully sad echo of that kiss follows when Yelena says goodbye to the hapless Vanya (Richard Roxburgh), who adores her to the point of self-immolation. She is angry with Vanya at this moment, and she hesitates as she leaves him. Finally she brings her face close to his bowed head and she (the suspense is killing everybody) finally brushes his forehead with her lips and briskly walks away. You can tell by Vanya’s expression that she might as well have used a branding iron.[…]
On the same day I saw “Vanya,” I was treated to a more optimistic act of osculation in the afternoon. That was when I caught up with Molly Smith’s spirited hit production of “Oklahoma!” at the newly renovated Arena Stage. Love, of course, is more straightforward (and fruitful) with Rodgers and Hammerstein than it ever is with Chekhov. Nonetheless, the young hero and heroine of “Oklahoma!” – Curly (Nicholas Rodriguez) and Laurey (Eleasha Gamble) — spend much of the show pretending they aren’t in love, even though everybody knows that they are.
Anyway, a moment comes in the second act when these two stop pretending. And in this version, the kiss that follows has an animalistic shock. Neither of these virginal young ’uns had any idea, it would appear, that a kiss would make their bodies react in such dangerous ways. As Laurey and Curly fumble across the stage — locked at the mouth, then stopping for air, then starting up again – you have the sense that a wrestling match is going on, as much within Curly as between him and his girl.
He may be a cowhand, but he’s enough of a gentleman to know that if he doesn’t stop soon, he won’t stop at all. And as he quickly puts distance between himself and Laurey, breathing hard, you feel the pure physical solitariness of what Curly’s life has been on the plains. You also experience a more benign version of the power of lust, an impulse that up to now has assumed forms that are either sinister and potentially violent (via the creepy handyman Jud, played by Aaron Ramey) or comical (via the ever-game Ado Annie, portrayed with energizing freshness by June Schreiner).
Allow me to describe one more kiss of summer that lingers. It came in Daniel Sullivan’s inspired staging of Shakespeare’s “All’s Well That Ends Well” at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park. Traditionally, the greatest problem in this notorious “problem play” is the relationship of its romantic leads, Helena (Annie Parisse), the wistful but enterprising doctor’s daughter, and Bertram (Andre Holland), the arrogant young aristocrat whom she adores.
Not to put too fine a point on it, Bertram is a loathsome twit who treats Helena like something on the sole of his shoe. Forced into marriage with her by the King of France, Bertram contrives to leave the country before their wedding night. Yet Helena, masochistic fool that she is, still worships the jerk and figures out a distinctly underhanded way of winning him back. Their relationship is one of the more distasteful in the literary history of lovers.
But Mr. Sullivan has interpolated a moment that makes us sympathize with both Helena and Bertram more than we usually do. When Bertram tells Helena shortly after their marriage that he is leaving for war, she begs him for a farewell kiss. In this version, he not only gives it to her but also finds himself extending that kiss. When it concludes, Mr. Holland has the stirred and shaken expression of someone surprised not only by physical desire but also by a feeling that’s stranger and stronger. And we see in Ms. Parisse’s face that while still not entirely confident, Helena has sensed a sea change in their relationship. Her hopes are not entirely unfounded, after all.
So Helena seems less foolish and self-flagellating than is her wont; Bertram comes across as less callous and much more vulnerable. And while Mr. Sullivan is far too savvy an interpreter of Shakespeare to present their final reunion as an unconditionally happy ending, we don’t cringe at their pairing either. And we recall the wisdom of words that were penned not, as it happens, by Shakespeare in the 16th century but by the songwriter Rudy Clark in the 1960s: “If you want to know if he loves you so, it’s in his kiss.”
I have focused only on kisses from this summer, but I can think of countless other examples, starting with the very different (and utterly malignant) one that Liev Schreiber planted on Morgan Spector in the 2010 revival of Arthur Miller’s “View from the Bridge.” (Parsing that one would require a Freudian treatise.) But I am now eager to hear about your memories of necking at the theater — on the stage, please, rather than in the balcony.