Forget about the kiss in The Kiss. The great power of that brief moment of human contact — and it is a great power — is nothing compared to that which precedes it. Ger Thijs' drama about two strangers meeting unexpectedly in the woods builds to that act, but as its characters learn, there is more to be gained from the journey than there is in how that journey ends.
In Upstream Theater's production, Lisa Tejero is the unnamed woman; Eric Dean White is our mystery man. The pair form an immediate dislike over a bench in the Dutch forest. She got there first, and he had hopes of sitting on that bench in solitude.
White keeps up a steady flow of complaints about their situation, which Tejero suffers in silence. She tells him to sit, but he can't let it go — to his way of thinking, she owns the bench by dint of being there first. Both are unhappy with the situation. But as The Kiss proceeds, it becomes clear that each of their lives have greater sadness than their unwanted acquaintanceship.
Director Kenn McLaughlin keeps the couple from getting too chummy by locking them into opposite sides of the stage. White is always on Tejero's right, whether sitting on the bench or standing to walk away, the shadow that won't leave her be.
But Tejero doesn't need another shadow; another has already cast its pall via a medical scan of her right breast. She's on her way to the hospital to find out what it means. As for White, he came out here to the woods of his youth to find inspiration for his next stand-up show — or so he claims. "You seem the sort of person who makes things worse," Tejero tells him, displaying the same haughtiness that she regretfully admits has made her unpopular with neighbors, and perhaps with her husband. White is surprisingly unfazed by this snap judgment, but when she tells him she can see his deep melancholy, his face falls to stillness. He, too, has regrets about himself and his life; there is the strong implication that he came to the woods for the very last time.
Thijs has included a great deal of Christian mysticism in The Kiss, a Dutch play making its U.S. debut in this production. Tejero is praying when White first finds her, while tiles depicting the fourteen stations of the cross ring the platform stage, designed by Michael Heil. There are repeated references to Tejero's journey being a pilgrimage, and White chides her for hoping an angel will come and take her shadows away.
The Kiss is the sort of unexpected delight Upstream Theater specializes in giving to audiences. It chases the philosophical questions of life — what are we here for? — in a manner both compelling and entertaining. Tejero and White disappear in these nameless people, sublimating themselves in the ritual characters of Thijs' medieval mystery play. She's the pilgrim, he's the fool and the forest is the labyrinth they must walk in order to find enlightenment at the end. What makes The Kiss magical is that the audience participates in this journey, and gets to bask in the reflected glow of their transformation.