Rita is an insomniac, and Peter loves the sign at the roller coaster: “Ride at your own risk.” The Huntington Theater has revived Craig Lucas’s Prelude to a Kiss, a romantic comedy that veers off into near tragedy when Rita kisses an old man on her wedding day and magically swaps souls with him. At the Humanities Forum following the Sunday matinee on May 23, I spoke with Charles Haugland about fairy-tale elements in the play, as well as about the folkloric significance of kisses.
In the program, Craig Lucas emphasizes theater’s power to show us “What if?”, to stage counterfactuals and to let us see perils and possibilities. Lucas draws repeatedly on fairy-tale motifs, shuffling them around to produce wry, ironic effects. Rita is a kind of Sleeping Beauty in reverse–her apocalyptic visions keep her up late into the night. She and Peter fall under the “spell” of love, but their love is cursed by an uninvited guest at their wedding, one not unlike the malicious thirteenth fairy at the celebration of Sleeping Beauty’s birth. Allusions abound to Beauty and the Beast, Little Red Riding Hood, and even Bluebeard.
The kiss in the play’s title has a venerable history in literary and visual culture, where toxic kisses and redemptive kisses work their sorcery. There is the kiss of death, the Judas kiss, and all those depleting kisses from the vampire, the succubus, and the equally lethal incubus. Yet there is also the kiss that liberates, transforms, and provides the breath of life. The stories of Pygmalion and Galatea, Sleeping Beauty and the Prince, the Frog King and the Princess, Beauty and the Beast all come to mind.
For a quick tutorial on the kiss in visual culture, the link below gives the obvious examples (Rodin, Klimt, and Munch) along with some wonderful lesser known works by Brancusi, Waterhouse, Fragonard, and others.
Prelude to a Kiss at the Huntington reminded me of how theater has the power, not just to ask “what if,” but also to touch, move, and transform us. As in Hans Baldung Grien’s Death and the Maiden, beauty and joy are shadowed by decay and death. And, thankfully, the consolations of the imagination in this play about what Byron called love’s heart-quake are not at all imaginary consolations.
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