Stop Kiss by Diana Son is the story of two young women, Sara (Kylie Anderson) and Callie (Flavia Pallozzi), living in New York in the late nineties. Each scene in the play alternates between two timelines; half of the scenes depict Sara and Callie as they meet for the first time, develop a friendship, and then slowly realize that their friendship might be something much deeper, lovelier, and more serious than they initially thought. Other scenes depict a near future where Sara is attacked by a violent man after her and Callie’s first kiss, in an act of homophobic violence. Callie must deal with the various reactions of friends, family, police, and the news media, while still struggling with her evolving feelings for Sara.
Stop Kiss is a play about the dichotomy of being queer; its very structure is a contrast between discovering the joy and freedom of stepping away from societal norms, and the pain caused by an unjust society which punishes that discovery at every turn. Director Kanomé Jones has put together an ensemble that understands this dichotomy on a visceral level, with the result that this collaboration between Pride Films and Plays and Arc Theatre touched something deep within my little queer heart in a way that no show in recent memory has.
The set, from designer Jessica Baldinger, is appropriately split in two. Most of the action takes place in the living room of Callie’s apartment, which, in accordance with Callie’s conflicted feelings about her life’s trajectory, is decorated with both bland accessories (like a plain gray CD player, and a rickety wooden bookshelf stuffed with generic paperbacks) and raucous dashes of color, like a bright red fold-out couch. Meanwhile, one corner is home to a set of purple chairs, which serve as a hospital waiting room as well as various other locales. Wrapped around the walls are large painted rectangles that alternate between white and gray, and seem almost slapdash, with poorly defined borders. This could have had an amateurish effect, but I liked it; it evoked for me the living space of someone who has a comfortable income but little idea what to do with it (Callie works as a traffic reporter for a radio station, but explains at length that she never studied journalism and doesn’t feel qualified or fulfilled in the job).
There are strong performances throughout the ensemble — but the backbone of the play is, of course, the chemistry between Callie and Sara. Anderson and Pallozzi play off of each other masterfully. Pallozzi’s performance as Callie is subtle, nuanced, and delightfully dysfunctional. Pallozzi is particularly good at portraying frustration and internal turmoil, while only allowing small bubbles of it to fizzle up to the surface. Anderson, as Sara, gives a bright and bubbly performance, playing the archetype of the cheerful, all-loving schoolteacher while giving us glimpses of the complicated, troubled person beneath.
Despite an ambitious and tightly written script, the most powerful moments in Stop, Kiss are nonverbal. The parlance of the late 90’s is devoid of much of the helpful, queer-friendly language we’ve developed in the past two decades. And so the deepening friendship, as well as the undercurrent of fear as Callie and Sara develop these forbidden feelings, is communicated through visual moments. The conversation stops suddenly, or a touch on the arm lingers just a little longer than expected; a glance is thrown and casually missed. The growing relationship and all its complications are nothing less than a careful dance — and Jones, Anderson, Pallozzi, and intimacy designer Gaby Labotka have choreographed it with precision and grace.
This show is particularly good at crystallizing one common facet of the queer experience — and that is the slow, nervous realization that your life is going to be very different than you initially thought. There’s an exhilarating thrill at finding your own queerness, discovering that the stale straightness you presumed was your destiny need not be your only option. Yet there is also fear — of rejection, abandonment, and bigotry, of striding confidently out of the closet only to be shoved violently back inside. And this is indeed what happens to Callie and Sara; this moment of joy is cruelly extinguished before it even had time to ignite, confirming their worst fears.
By segmenting the show into “before” and “after” scenes, Stop Kiss demonstrates how intertwined those opposing feelings of fear and excitement are, while simultaneously showing that they could not be more irrelevant to each other. The biting fear that holds our heroes back in the “before” is justified in the “after,” but in between? In that perfect middle point, between fear and pain? There is ample catharsis to be found, not only in triumphant declarations of love, but in tiny, unremarkable moments of connection — and it is there that Stop Kiss shines the brightest.
Kylie Anderson (Sara)
Joe Faifer (Peter/Detective Cole)
Sheila Landahl (Mrs.Winsley/Nurse)
Flavia Pallozzi (Callie)
Shane Novoa Rhoades (George)
Producer: Natalie Sallee
Director: Kanomé Jones
Assistant Director: Kimberly Logan
Stage Manager: Carinne Uslar
Production Assistant: Shannon Metts
Intimacy Designer: Gaby Labotka
Set Designer: Jessica Baldinger
Lighting/Sound Designer: Mike McShane
Costume Designer: Jennifer Mohr
Photographer: Patrick McClean