In ‘Stage Kiss,’ ex-lovers play actors playing lovers _lowres

Photo by John Barrois -- John Neisler, Trey Burvant and Aimee Hayes in 'Stage Kiss.'

“Stage Kiss” is the story of two actors, ex-lovers referred to only as He and She, who are reunited after being cast in a play-within-the-play called “The Last Kiss.”

As the actors prepare for their new roles, old flames burn bright, and they must navigate their fiery relationship both on and off the stage.

As the title suggests, there is kissing involved in “Stage Kiss.” Lots and lots of kissing.

“When I kissed you just now, did it feel like an actor kissing an actor? Or a person kissing a person?” she asks during a romantic interlude. “Because I’ve kissed you so many times over the last few weeks, I’m starting to not know the difference.”

“Stage Kiss” is filled with these kinds of confusing moments — confusion over love and lust, over real life and dramatic fantasy. Written by Sarah Ruhl, the romantic comedy premiered in Chicago in 2011 before being revised for an off-Broadway run last year. Southern Rep opens its 2015-16 season with the regional premiere of “Stage Kiss,” running Sept. 19 to Oct. 10 at Ashé Power House.

After successfully staging previous works by Ruhl — “The Clean House” in 2008 and “In the Next Room (or The Vibrator Play)” in 2010 — Southern Rep’s artistic director Aimée Hayes said “Stage Kiss” was a no-brainer.

“I love doing her plays because very rarely is there a really well-written play that deals with matters of the heart so directly,” Hayes said. “She understands the nuances of women and men’s interactions when it comes to relationships and love, and I think as a playwright she’s always sort of digging around about why we connect, where we disconnect and where is the heat between people.”

Hayes stars in “Stage Kiss” as a just-past-her-prime actress growing restless in her role as devoted wife and loving mother.

When she lands a part in “The Last Kiss,” a 1930s melodrama about a dying woman who longs for a past lover, she ends up playing opposite a reckless former fling (played by Trey Burvant) who has resisted settling down.

The pair hash out past grievances and rediscover simmering passions as they prepare for opening night, examining what’s become of their own lives in the process.

The action of the play is meant to move swiftly between worlds, as the lives of the characters become intertwined with the roles they’re playing.

The theatrical device of the play-within-the-play gives the show an opportunity to poke fun at the world of theater and provides audiences with a glimpse of the drama that goes on behind the curtain.

Director Jason Kirkpatrick said rehearsals for “Stage Kiss” often result in a unique piece of meta-theater: The show’s actors are rehearsing scenes while playing characters who themselves are actors rehearsing scenes.

The difficulty of staging this kind of play lies in maintaining a cohesive tone as the actors bounce in and out of character, a challenge that Kirkpatrick said the cast has embraced.

“It’s fun to watch, to see them go in and out of styles, navigating through the different style (of the play-within-the-play) and this style of play, which is a very honest,” Kirkpatrick said.

“The actors are getting to know each other, and they’re getting comfortable with each other, and they’re discovering those very real moments.”