The trees are gorgeous, the sky the perfect shade of blue—perhaps perfect because it keeps on changing from moment to moment, as if it knows our feelings and anticipates them. As with all the best stage sets, this one seems to go on forever. And we start to doubt what we know for sure—that theater is not film, and that there are physical limits to the auditorium.
That Cavalia’s horse ballet Odysseo rattles such basic premises before it even begins is a striking feat of conceptual daring. Even so, when the company releases the first stallion onto the stage under the big top at AT&T Park, you’re shocked at the speed and power of the animal. It marks the beginning of a series of energetic, equine performances—decidedly wild and yet rigorously managed.
At first it seems that horses running in various patterns is all we're going to get: straight across the stage, fast; in circles, clockwise and counter; up and down the huge raked stage, sometimes at pleasing diagonals. If math were art, it might look something like this. Even the riders seem part of the geometry and not really human.
And then come the acrobats and the show enters a different realm. The key scene comes when man and horse perform together, not in tandem, but rather alongside and against each other. To watch a horse jump over a ridiculously high barrier is to revel in nature’s perfection; to watch a man do the same is to understand something about the imagination.
As beautiful as they are, the horses are just a measuring stick for a radical accounting of human ingenuity: They’re just horses. That they’ve been trained to perform says little about them, and more about us. And the best scene of the show reduces the stallions to background props -- a slowly moving merry-go-round circles as aerialists contort and still their bodies against the poles. The acrobats seem to defy everything we know of gravity and human strength. It is a stunning reversal of nature: A horse could never do that and wouldn't have the imagination to even try.
Yet given all this beauty, the show somehow feels empty. Odysseo aspires to the unlimited, and it has the skills to get there. But it’s caught in a New Age aesthetic that sees no difference between achievement and art. Cavalia’s performers and horses are capable of unbelievable stunts, but that's where it stops. What you see is awe-inspiring, but awe is a fast-diminishing resource. Odysseo doesn’t even try to offer anything else.
Sara Ruhl’s Stage Kiss at San Francisco Playhouse has an unusual take on a problem that Cavalia never considers: what does it mean to complete an action? In this particular case, the action under consideration is a kiss, and the subtle deviation between the act and its theatrical proxies of “stage” kiss and “staged” kiss. There’s enough kissing of all kinds in this backstage romance about a pair of former lovers who’ve been cast in the same play as a pair of former lovers. And yet the meaning of those kisses evades the characters and propels the drama forward to a crucial question: can a stage kiss take on the feeling and depth of a real one? Or are all kisses, in one way or the other, staged? It’s a worthy question that the play never answers.
Ruhl might have the shifty nature of reality on her mind, but her drama traffics in the most conventional rom-com clichés on file. Her leads, He and She, meet cute, or, more accurately, re-meet cute. She’s married and He isn’t, both in real life and the play. Just as there’s a pleasure in watching a horse run, there’s a pleasure in watching the obvious play itself out—an abundance of clichés is no deterrent to beauty or fun.
The play-within-the-play gambit has a long theatrical tradition. Whether its concerns are metaphysical (as in Luigi Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author), or spirited entertainment (à la Noises Off by Michael Frayn), it’s a genre for obsessives. But Ruhl is too lack a writer to pull it off. It’s telling that so many of the targets of her satirical jabs in Stage Kiss— pretentious directors, gay actors, sullen children, Broadway fluff, and edgy dramas—are so broadly written that they reveal more about the limitations of Ruhl the satirist than the failures of the satirized.
There is one beautiful moment, though, where it seems that the whole play is actually a dying woman’s last dream. Near the end, She tells He a story: a Japanese woman apologizes to her family for running away with the man she loves. They respond: "You've been here the whole time, you've been ill, in bed." Carrie Paff, in the role of She, delivers the lines with such sorrow that for one brief moment you see what Stage Kiss could have been. You want Ruhl to have the conviction to follow through with her most powerful impulses, but she'd rather hint at significance than actually work to realize it. If the actress had been dreaming, it wouldn't compensate for the play’s many deficiencies. Nonetheless, it might have brought a real sense of credibility and ruefulness to the proceedings.
Much of what we see on Bay Area stages is not art, but just gestures towards something that looks like art. You go to Stage Kiss and you’re mostly just marking time. You’re amazed at Odysseo, but you’re deadened by its inability to imagine anything but its own spectacle. Non-art has an uncanny sense of what people think they want and then spoon-feeds it back to them. You could say the same of the Hypocrites' beach party Pirates of Penzance at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre, Amy Freed’s The Monster-Builder at the Aurora Theatre, and Stew’s song cycle about James Baldwin, Notes on a Native Song, that just played in the Curran: Under Construction series. It’s a maddening display of wasted time and energy: real art takes your soul and pins it to the ground.
Cavalia’s Odysseo runs through January 10, 2016 behind AT&T Park in San Francisco. For tickets and information visit www.cavalia.net.
Sara Ruhl’s Stage Kiss runs through January 9, 2016 at San Francisco Playhouse in San Francisco. For tickets and information visit www.sfplayhouse.org.