When Diana Son’s play “Stop Kiss” first premiered at New York’s Public Theater in December 1998, the world was very different. Only two months prior, Matthew Shepard was beaten to death in Laramie, WY, for being gay. Vermont wouldn’t become the first state to al- low civil unions for two more years. Stigma surrounding the LGBTQ+ community still lingered in the echoes of the AIDS pandemic’s zenith earlier in the decade. Despite the progress that has occurred in the last two decades, Son’s play exists now exists as a capsule for a bygone era.
Presented by Unbound, “Stop Kiss” will be performed in The Mug on Nov. 16at9p.m.,andNov.17and18at8p.m. Directed by Liv Rhodes ’18 and stage managed by Nina Zacharia ’20, Son’s dramedy centers on the main characters Sara and Callie’s relationship, starting from when they meet spontaneously and following them as it develops further, culminating in an angry bystander attacking them on a park bench after their first kiss. Told in a non-linear format, the play presents both the build-up to this action and the aftermath.
Within the theatrical canon, fe- male-centered plays are few and far between. Props designer Delaney Sears ’21 spoke about how “Stop Kiss” creates a spotlight for an underrepresented voice: “One thing that I always notice is with plays and musicals, having two female leads is very rare. There are a lot of shows that just don’t have female leads. A show that fo- cuses not only on female leads but also on a female love story is really special and really important. Obviously, the play has very important messages about sexuality and acceptance and love, but it’s also visibility of women, especially gay women.”
Before the semester began, Rhodes was considering a final piece of theater that she’d want to direct in her senior year. Having first encountered “Stop Kiss” after a mentor and friend of hers recommended she read it, Rhodes decided to direct the play for its balance of fun, brevity and meaningfulness.
Despite the heavy subject matter of the play’s climax of the violent attack, the play balances that weight with moments of lightheartedness similar to a ’90s rom-com. Zacharia ’20 explained how the play’s balance of tone piqued her interest in the production: “I really liked the juxtaposition of the serious scenes with the lighter scenes and how it could tell such a compelling story. But it wasn’t only light; there was a seriousness about it.”
Addressing how this production remains in conversation with the original play’s political and social climate, Zacharia continued: “I think it’s important especially to look back and see how things were. I agree with Liv’s choice to keep things set in the 1990s. It’s important to see how attitudes have changed, because I believe on the whole, we are improving, even if there is a long way to go. It reminds me of the struggles people had to face for us to get to this point where we can be in an environment that’s so much more accepting.”
The Public’s original production featured Jessica Hecht and Sandra Oh as Callie and Sara, respectively, and opened to rave reviews, going on to be extended three times. Since that play, Son has written for various TV shows and seen her work produced by hundreds of theaters internationally.
Most Vassar student theater productions only designate a few days of tablework to discuss themes and character before getting the play on its feet. However, Rhodes and the “Stop Kiss” team felt it was important to put a greater emphasis on creating an open conversation to comfortably approach the play’s themes. Rhodes elaborat- ed: “We spent the first half really focusing in on discussion. We talked a lot; we really tried to get a certain level of comfort and open dialogue, among the actors especially, because this show can be so heavy at times. We didn’t want to minimize it at all. We reached out to a lot of resources on campus. We talked to SAVP, the Women’s Center and the LGBTQ Center. We’ll have TLC representatives at every show. We’ve really tried to utilize what we have on campus and tried to be as mindful and aware of how important this show is. It’s not just a funny show that gets to deal with trauma.”
While many productions of “Stop Kiss” choose to set the play in a contemporary setting, Un- bound’s production deliberately embraces elements of the 1990s to emphasize the distance and progress Zacharia was referring to. ’90s culture seeps through especially in the props, such as the use of an answering machine, and through the costume design.
In an effort not to reinforce lazy stereotypes around lesbians that other productions have played into, costume designer Sunny Gaughen ’18 found a more textual source: “The main characters are two women who haven’t explored their queerness before. ‘Gay’ is not a costume. You can’t costume someone as a queer character, so I tried to make them fit their characters’ personalities instead.”
Discussing the depth this production goes in its costumes, Gaughen continued: “Most productions of ‘Stop Kiss,’ unless there’s a distinct list change, they’ll have characters wear the same thing throughout the entire show, whereas Liv and I honestly preferred it where there’s 23 scenes and Callie has 21 costumes. Maybe not completely distinct costumes, but definite temporal changes where we’re really trying to show different moments. The clothes have played a big role in that.”
Another challenging production element other student shows know well is that The Mug can be a difficult space to work in. Not only does the cast and crew have to work around the other members of the Vassar community that use the space, but the awkward layout of the space can make it difficult to design a set. After their discussions, the cast and crew made sure to hold rehearsals solely in The Mug to overcome the awkwardness of the space, rehearsing full runs even before tech week began to allow the actors to get comfortable and discover new choices.
In the role of Callie, Samantha Leftt ’19 is in 22 of the 23 scenes of the play, a challenge for any actor. Leftt spoke about how Son’s play speaks to concerns that the audience can still observe today: “As much as the play hinges on this one act of violence, not every scene feels like it’s leading up to it. It does very much feel like a rom-com, but also a friendship that’s building, but also this dark look at violence and how it affects people. I think it’s just an issue today also. How do we protect ourselves and other people when we exist in these bodies that are constantly targeted just for being what they are?”
The play runs for just over an hour and a half and there will be no intermission. Tickets can be reserved at the info desk.
“We’ve had such a great time and I’m so lucky to be doing this and working with these people. I sound like such a cheeseball, but honestly, they’re so wonderful and I’ve learned so much from them everyday,” Rhodes remarked, reflecting on the importance of the emotional bonding in creating a cohesive cast and crew, and as a result a cohesive show. “I can’t believe this is something I’ve been doing. I get to spend my time working with these incredibly talented actors doing these amazing things onstage. So I’m just really proud.”