Stop Kiss presented by Loyola University’s Department of Theatre Arts & Dance
She Kills Monsters presented by Tulane University’s Department of Theatre and Dance
Given that their schedules were made up months in advance and independently of each other, it seems like it was just a coincidence that Tulane’s and Loyola’s theater departments presented two contemporary plays within a week of each other both of which featured young lesbian characters. Given how few plays there are that feature queer women, this is like some rare planetary alignment.
More importantly, despite being done under COVID-restrictions, both productions were excellent, demonstrating that, even in these pandemic times, our universities are maintaining the highest standards as they prepare the next generation of theater artists.
At Loyola, Stop Kiss finally got its local premiere; it was set to be done at Southern Rep in 2005 but Hurricane Katrina stopped it. Premiered off-Broadway in 1998, the play explores an incipient lesbian relationship between Callie and new-to-NYC Sara that is halted by violence just as it begins to blossom. Ironically, seen days after the horrific gender-based attack in Atlanta, Stop Kiss remains terribly relevant.
Written by Diana Son, long before she became a successful TV writer and producer (Law & Order, 13 Reasons Why), Stop Kiss is, at its heart, a romcom wrapped in a crime drama. As such it’s now, dramaturgically, reminiscent of such shows as NYPD Blue or Law & Order. Like many early career plays, it begins with a lot of exposition and when a big blow-up comes, it kinda seems manufactured.
In some ways, it even now seems a bit quaint from its push-button telephones to a pre-gentrified, still gritty New York to a time of much less open and accepted sexual fluidity, especially among 20somethings. Still it packs a wallop for the way a brief horrible moment can upend lives.
Though the play’s action jumps around in time, Salvatore Mannino & Baylee Robertson’s precise direction kept the story always clear and understandable. If the first few “getting to know you” scenes came off as slightly static, Mannino & Robertson wisely allowed the script’s rhythms to emerge naturally and nicely choreographed the tentative pas de deux as Sara and Callie’s relationship develops.
As Callie, Aria Jackson gave a luminous performance as a young woman at a crossroads in her career and romantic life, trying to make sense of feelings she seems to be unfamiliar with. Jackson pulled together all the strands of Callie’s imperfect character into a convincing whole, incisively differentiating the Callie from before the attack with the one after, who’s been forced to grow up too soon and for the most wrong of reasons.
Playing a Midwesterner who’s come east to teach elementary school in the Bronx, Sonya Ewing made a sincere and truthful (if, perhaps, a touch too perky) Sara, but didn’t fully convey the gradual growth of an emotional/physical attraction to Callie; it didn’t seem as though her Sara would be more than just good friends with Callie (of course, human relationships are endlessly surprising). Still, with her determined bearing and straight-faced mien, Ewing impressed me as a potentially outstanding Nora in A Doll’s House, among other characters.
Tellingly, Son gives Sara and Callie their most exuberant moment together when they break into a spontaneous dance and, guided by Mannino & Robertson, Jackson and Ewing buoyantly filled the stage then with wordless joy.
In part due to COVID and the understandable goal of limiting participation, Mannino & Robertson departed from the original script by reducing the cast size from six to four and consolidating secondary roles. This actually worked quite well as Sebastian Phillips and Lauren Shavor both excelled in multiple parts, particularly Phillips who got to show off a wider range of his versatility as Callie’s (wild yet decent) and Sara’s (staid yet decent) respective (ex(?)-) boyfriends.
Technically, the production was highly polished, with Cass Poulin’s lighting and Sophia Christilles’ sound design at a professional level. Alas, as the actors were masked and unmiked, it was somewhat difficult to understand them when they occasionally faced away from me (of course, if I had arrived earlier and had gotten a seat in the center of the socially-distanced Lower Depths Theater rather than on the side, this might not have been an issue). This was a small distraction, however, from an otherwise emotionally compelling evening of theater.
Technically, Tulane’s She Kills Monsters was equally outstanding. Emmalie Hall-Skank and Christopher Rodriguez’s massive set wrapped around The Lupin Theater, imaginatively demarcating various playing spaces. Costume Designers Hope Bennett, Stephanie Dixon, and Jaime Silverman (with Jenn Jacobs listed as “Costume Director”) created outfits that seemed lifted from Mardi Gras floats and other phantasmagoric realms.
Qui Nguyen’s dramedy debuted off-Broadway in 2011 and, with its multiple roles for young people, has since gone on to be hugely popular around the country particularly with high schools and colleges; this is the second production here this academic year following Delgado’s online version in the fall.
In She Kills Monsters, a teenage girl, Tilly, is killed in a car crash along with her parents; after her older sister Agnes then discovers a Dungeons & Dragons notebook that Tilly had created, she embarks, with the help of a Dungeon Master, Chuck, on a quest to become better acquainted with her sister who had revealed aspects of herself, including her lesbianism, in the D&D notebook.
This leads to fantasy scenes as Agnes, a high school teacher, delves into D&D role-playing, featuring fairies and demons, alternating with real-life passages as she tries to process the newfound information about a kid sister she had never really taken the time to get to know.
Admittedly, She Kills Monsters has the air of an earnest Afterschool Special, and its D&D sequences come off as more believable than some of its real-life ones which border on the preposterous. But Monsters is to be commended for its sympathetic take on outsiders, both sexual minorities and those who are physically challenged, who may use such fantasy games as wish fulfillment escapism, and for its examination of teenage sexuality of the queer kind.
Even though I have never been a D&D gamester, Director John “Ray” Proctor and his entire cast, made all of Monsters’ twists and turns utterly pellucid (Delgado’s was marred by some technical problems that left me somewhat confused) by entirely committing to the characters and situations, filling the former with personality and the latter with vitality.
As Agnes, for whom a tragic car crash forces her out of a “boring” life, Grace Patterson gracefully limned the maturation of an “average” SWF into a more compassionate adult. We watch, and identify with, her as she enters the alien world of D&D, struggling to keep up with the more accomplished players around her while also dealing with her actual boyfriend and school colleague. Even when some of the situations Agnes encounters made me go “Really??”, Patterson always found and conveyed the underlying emotional truth in them.
Lourdes Castilo’s Tilly was an Amazonian powerhouse in the D&D sequences and appropriately so. In those few moments when we see the “actual” Tilly, however, Castilo’s strikingly attractive looks worked against this self-described “dork” and she never quite fully expressed Tilly’s nerdiness.
(If cross-registration had been possible, I might’ve liked to have seen Castilo as Agnes, Patterson as Sara in Stop Kiss and Tulane’s Ewing as Tilly.)
Standouts in the rest of the cast included Ivan Huerta as Orcus, a cheeky demon of the underworld; Emily Robinett as a malevolent fairy with a disconcertingly innocent voice; Abigail Holland and Mikayla Weissberg as killer cheerleaders; and, especially, Madi Bolin as Chuck, the good-hearted and helpful Dungeon Master “without a penis”.
Proctor’s otherwise excellent direction stumbled only towards the end when we’re introduced to some of the kids whose avatars we’ve seen in the D&D sections. The actors had their backs to us members of the small, socially-distanced audience and the scene felt slightly rushed, preventing us from getting the full, potentially heartbreaking contrast between the reality of these marginalized teenagers and the empowered D&D versions of themselves.
She Kills Monsters may not be Shakespeare, but Tulane’s cast and crew were wholly endearing in their theatrical creativity that brought it to vibrant life. If they can do that, I suspect they can do just about anything. Including slaying dragons.
Eva Noblezada, Emily Skinner and Jackie Hoffman/The Seth Concert Series through May 28
Over the last three Sundays Seth Rudetsky has welcomed three very different, but all extremely talented, ladies to his Seth Concert Series. Airing live from their living rooms, they’ve each entertained, exquisitely, in their unique and special ways.
Eva Noblezada, the youngest performer to appear so far on the series, was adorable yet tough, delightfully cheeky (“I like playing vulnerable bitches who you want to hang out with.”), and displayed a very savvy sense of the business as well as a lovely, powerful and pitch-perfect voice.
Discovered when she was a high school senior, the Mexican/Philippine actress went on to star in the Broadway revival of Miss Saigon and then the Tony winner Hadestown as Eurydice. She picked up Tony Award nominations for each of these shows as Best Actress in a Musical.
Her songs included a soul-baring Without You from Rent; Miss Saigon’s The Last Night of the World, a duet with Rudetsky; the delicious Show Off from The Drowsy Chaperone; a medley of Annie Get Your Gun’s They Say It’s Wonderful and Smile by Charlie Chaplin; Les Misérables’ I Dreamed a Dream, which you can easily picture her doing on stage; and a so very pretty Moon River.
Noblezada said working on Hadestown and creating a new character was her “biggest challenge but biggest payoff”, and one certainly hopes she’ll have many more chances to create such new roles. Watching her, however, I also envisioned her as Nellie Forbush, Annie Oakley, Eliza Doolittle and other classic parts. Let’s hope she’ll find many more big payoffs in an ongoing combination of original and canonical roles.
Emily Skinner, a Tony nominee for Side Show, charmed with tales of a madcap audition for a director’s dog (the Lincoln Center revival of Dinner at Eight), botched light cues leading to birthday suit costumes (The Full Monty), and, as described by Rudetsky, “the most hilarious costume change story on Broadway” involving a sarcophagus and a musical director who had to keep vamping and vamping and vamping.
With her honey-coated soprano, Skinner delivered a performance level version of As We Stumble Along from The Drowsy Chaperone; a compassionate Children Will Listen (Into the Woods); Pal Joey’s Bewitched, Bothered, Bewildered whose lyrics are “aggressively sexy”; a wistful Bus from Amarillo from The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas; Full Monty’s wacky Life With Harold; and the rollicking specialty number I Want Them Bald.
Skinner comes off as a pro yet seems to be a completely down-to-earth person. Like previous performers in the series, she observed that this was only the second time she had sung in public since the pandemic shut everything down and she had woken up that morning thinking “Do I still know how to do this?”, a very touching moment of self-revelation.
With its wide-ranging mix of songs, great backstage stories, and insights into the craft of theater, this was one of The Seth Concert Series best editions. And ending with Mae West’s Come Up And See Me Sometime, with Skinner sounding just like West, was the cherry on top.
And then there’s the singular Jackie Hoffman whose voice recalls chalk on a blackboard, who looks at life through slate-colored glasses, and whose skewed worldview (“If you’re young and in love, fuck you”) tickles my funny bone. Immensely.
Having performed with Second City for many years, Hoffman made her Broadway debut at age 42 with three different small roles in Hairspray which catapulted her to semi-stardom. This led to featured roles in the campy Broadway musicals Xanadu and The Addams Family cementing her status as a downtown gay icon.
In addition to a number of marvelous comic cabaret numbers (What Happened to You, Bill Cosby? which included the line “You were sleeping with women/While they were sleeping”), Hoffman sang Annie’s Little Girls with hysterical abandon–boy, would I love to see her as Miss Hannigan!
She also spoke of her recent “spectacular experience” playing Yente in the 2018 off-Broadway Yiddish version of Fiddler on the Roof about which I wrote “the priceless Jackie Hoffman tears into the part with not only comic shtik, but a perfect delivery of every line, relishing the angular sounds of Yiddish and, in so doing, adding another layer of expressiveness to the role.”
Hoffman ended her concert with Everything’s Coming up Roses…in Yiddish. An instant, friggin’ unbelievable classic and just possibly the single best number done on The Seth Concert Series since it started last May. And that’s saying a lot.
Up next, on March 28, is Ashley Spencer, who came in second place among the Sandys on the TV show Grease: You’re the One that I Want!; seen last month with hubby Jeremy Jordan, she and her awesome set of pipes will be joined by special guest Kara Lindsay. They’ll be followed by Matt Doyle (April 4), Tony winner Ali Stroker (April 11), Stephanie J. Block and Sebastian Arcelus (April 18), Mandy Gonzalez (April 25), and, on May2, the original Annie herself, Andrea McArdle. Enjoy!
To purchase tickets to these upcoming shows, go to thesethconcertseries.com