Editors' pick

Stop Kiss

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Editorial Review

The stop and go of romance

By Peter Marks
Saturday, Sept. 17, 2011

Diana Son's "Stop Kiss" plays like an absorbing public-service announcement. The tale of the furtive lesbian romance that unfolds in the months before and after the commission of a brutal hate crime, the piece sensitively chronicles the sexual awakening of two appealing young women as they tiptoe around mutual desire.

The work radiated more urgency at its New York unveiling in 1998, when the recounting of the crime and the incremental tracking of the attraction between schoolteacher Sara and traffic reporter Callie seemed novel departures for a New York City story of love and self-acceptance.

But it still offers its tender and funny rewards, which are validated in director Holly Twyford's unadorned production for a fledgling troupe on H Street NE, No Rules Theatre. With a cast headed by the effortlessly convincing Alyssa Wilmoth as Sara and Rachel Zampelli as Callie, No Rules produces a "Stop Kiss" with no-
nonsense authority and, more important, a lack of the sentimentalizing that can phony up such an evening.

Twyford exhibits her own authority here, in her directorial debut. She played Sara in Woolly Mammoth Theatre's regional premiere of the play, in 2000. A gentle authenticity permeates the sparsely dressed H Street Playhouse performance space: The only real mystery in "Stop Kiss" is how and when that major first kiss comes to be, and Twyford and her actresses know exactly how to tantalize us with the tension.

Son's play intersperses the details of an evening during which Sara is beaten into a coma by a stranger with the back-story evolution of her affection for Callie. At the outset, both are in stages of disentangling themselves from heterosexual relationships. Sara, it seems, has fled St. Louis for a teaching job in the Bronx partly to escape the smothering attention of boyfriend Peter (Jonathan Lee Taylor). And Callie's attachment to restaurateur George (Bo Roddie) is propelled principally by George's willingness to be a mere back-seat passenger in Callie's life.

One of the more satisfying aspects of "Stop Kiss" is the slightly off-putting portrait of a whiny Callie, a woman not at all happy with her lot. In Zampelli's perceptive handling, there is a sadness to Callie, who's trapped in a job and sexual identity that don't fulfill her. That her work entails helping others navigate the city is ironic.

The piece, too, treats the graduated nature of Sara and Callie's halting romance with an affectionate wisdom, even when it's on the rocks. Increasingly skittish around each other as they sense their relationship moving toward a physical one, they find, as people do, the most picayune pretext for throwing cold water on their ever-harder-to-control feelings. On an important occasion for Callie, those sure-fire fighting words - "Is that what you're wearing?" - send them into a ridiculous argument, funny in its vehemence.

One could wish that a more contrasting rhythm might be set for the starker scenes involving the police investigation by Detective Cole (Howard Wahlberg). The idea that Son seems to be pursuing is how, even when a conventionally minded cop tries not to be insensitive to a coupling he doesn't quite understand, he still ends up asking questions that smack of judgment. You have to believe that Cole's interrogation of Callie could be more hackles-raising than the uncertainly paced proceedings evoked on this occasion.

On the other hand, Taylor injects just the right amount of clueless possessiveness in a strong scene with Zampelli's Callie outside Sara's convalescent room. It affirms Callie's observation that Sara's family blames her for the attack on Sara late one night, after they've emerged from a lesbian bar. The family looks at Callie, she says, "like I'm a dirty old man."

Tony Cisek's ultra-basic set - a few sticks of furniture - and Frank Labovitz's costume choices reflect Callie's (and Zampelli's) understated beauty. In the best tradition of theater at the ground-floor level, No Rules, with Twyford's aid, figures out how to make a lot from very little.

New resonance, new director for No Rules’ play ‘Stop Kiss'

By Lavanya Ramanathan
Friday, Sept. 2, 2011

It's a hot summer evening, and a rehearsal of No Rules Theatre Co.'s latest production, "Stop Kiss," is winding down when Holly Twyford, one of the city's most prolific stage actresses, leaps onto the set to huddle with Alyssa Wilmoth and Rachel Zampelli over a scene.

But audiences won't see Twyford in "Stop Kiss" when it opens Wednesday at the H Street Playhouse: For the first time in her long career, the actress will be stepping into the role of director.

To watch her during rehearsal - a live wire in a pink T-shirt and curly blond locks, urging her actors to take their characters to the next level, bursting into laughing fits with them over a flubbed line - one thing is quite apparent: She's having a ball.

In "Stop Kiss," Zampelli plays Callie, an increasingly jaded New Yorker whose door is suddenly brightened by an optimistic newcomer named Sara (Wilmoth). Before they can begin to parse their budding feelings for each other, their lives are set off-course by a violent hate crime.

Twyford is surprisingly hands-on on the set, and it takes her just a moment to realize where she might have picked up that directing style. "I've done many shows with Aaron Posner, and have taken a lot of my philosophies and cues from him," Twyford says of the popular local director, whose work has included "Macbeth" and the much more recent "Comedy of Errors," both at Folger. "He gets up right in your face to tell you about some childhood moment that could connect to a moment you're having right now onstage."

She credits other directors, too, for instilling the techniques she has put to use in "Stop Kiss." Dealing with props, costumes and lighting, on the other hand, is new to her, and one suspects they just might be keeping this perfectionist up at night.

"I'm hands-on, because, to be perfectly honest, I don't know what the boundaries are," Twyford confesses with a laugh. "So I keep saying things about costumes and props, but I think I'm supposed to let someone else worry about some of the things I'm worrying about."

In the 13-odd years since playwright and TV writer Diana Son ("The West Wing") penned "Stop Kiss," it has been performed frequently - in New York, by regional theaters like No Rules and on college campuses, where its frank dissection of 20-something life (and coy flirtation with gay sexuality) seems to make perfect sense.

Twyford, in fact, starred in "Stop Kiss" in its Washington debut at Woolly Mammoth Theatre in 2000. She brushes off any recollection of playing Sara, noting that she has performed in about 50 shows since. It was Zampelli who persuaded her to give "Stop Kiss" another look.

Both actresses were in "Orestes: A Tragic Romp" last year at Folger Theater, and Zampelli learned that Twyford was looking for a new challenge. What would be more challenging than directing? Zampelli wanted to shop "Stop Kiss" to local companies, with Twyford at the helm.

It was a bit of a strategic move, Zampelli confesses. "It would be [Twyford's] directing debut - brilliant. And she's, like, famous in D.C. For all these reasons," Zampelli says, and because Twyford herself is gay, "people would be interested in this."

"It is, sadly, still timely," Twyford adds, citing stories that never seem to go away, like that of the gay Rutgers freshman who committed suicide after his classmates outed him. The recent attack against a group of lesbian women in Columbia Heights also strongly echoed some of the plot of "Stop Kiss."

Twyford says that although the show is about much more than "a gay bashing," those stories are why people can still relate to the play, even more than a decade after its Washington debut. "Being surprised by falling in love," she says, "is utterly universal. Sadly, so is homophobia, and violence, and making tough choices."