Friday, June 3, 2016

Review: The Mistakes We Make

by Michael Block

Let's just get it out of the way now. Kiss It, Make It Better by Erika Phoebus, produced by Theatre 4the People, is a tale of two acts. Act I is the example of brilliant writing and storytelling. Act II is a completely different and disappointing play. And it's a shame because Kiss It, Make It Better could have been exceptional. But we'll get to that in a bit.
Kiss It, Make It Better follows the complex relationship between Nadia and Ty, two wounded individuals who run away from their problems. Spanning more than a decade, Phoebus’ play is a dangerous piece that treads deep water. Ultimately, this play is a highlight reel of teen hardship. The way it is portrayed in the first act is promising. But when Act II takes a turn for the psychological and not always real, Phoebus seems to lose control of her play. Act II lacks the spark Act I has and needs to be trimmed immensely. This is a coming of age story, yes, but there are times as if scenes were lifted straight from Spring Awakening. Starting in Act I, we watch a pair of friends grow up before our eyes. As their relationship moves from friends to something more intimate. But as they learn about themselves and the world, they find themselves in situations that alter the course of their future, both individually and as a pair. This coming of age story is accessible and universal. But by the second act, Phoebus explores a new style that does not even come close to being as successful as her poignant first act. In Act II, the duo run away from the world and their problems and make a home at the fairgrounds. They try to play pretend as adults but the reality is, they just don’t know how. The action becomes very repetitive and sadly the characters don’t feel as genuine as they had before. Phoebus plays with some not so realistic elements in her storytelling. And there’s even an ill-timed monologue from Nadia’s mother. Sure, the characters are the same but the cohesiveness between acts is just not there. What should be a winning script suddenly has too much happening that sacrifices the integrity.
photo by Yvonne Alloway
Despite the drastic contrast of the script, Kiss It, Make It Better featured visionary direction. Director Isaac Byrne brought together a technically ambitious concept to lift Phoebus’ text. Was the execution perfect? Absolutely not. But you have to give this team a have for what they tried to pull off. At the forefront of the concept was the structure designed by Joshua Rose. The first side was a series of three sets of scaffolding each with white clip-on beams. It was a stretch but it resembled a roller coaster. On the other side was the front porch of a house, working and window included. The company used Rose’s set like a jungle gym. Byrne utilized it to the max. When you first walk into The New Ohio Theater and see the structure against Rose’s beautifully intense blue lights, it’s sensational. But as the play moved on, the set became cumbersome. Whether they weren’t attached well or if they were not imagined fully, the white clip on wood pieces on the scaffolding were a massive hindrance. To start, the structure simply rotated. But through the magic of theater, it came apart. When did the manipulation of the set happen? Quite possibly at the worst time ever. There are many layers to make this effect look and sound good without putting an immediate pause into the show. Byrne had his two-piece acting crew dismantle the set during the climatic party scene. Because the structure is metal, it’s going to be loud so a party sounds like a good point? Right? Well to mask the dismantlement, the music was amplified. But what was happening textually at this moment? The most important part of Nadia’s narrative. At this point Nadia and her old older babysitter are getting intimate which will lead into sexual experience that will alter her entire life. Though inexperienced, Nadia made decisions that lead up this encounter. But because of the environment of the set, sound, and staging, it’s virtually impossible to hear Nadia demand Bradley to stop. This essential line could virtually create a new narrative going forward with the play. This is a prime example of ambition thwarting a production. Beyond this moment, Byrne was quite in tune of his direction. Tempo played an integral part in Byrne’s staging. He kept the momentum moving until important beats where the pacing slowed down. When it came to projections, Maxwell Bowman’s well-conceived design was lost due to the lack of solid canvas. It was hard to depict the specificity. But when it was clear and visible, you could see the artistry in Bowman’s work. Kiss It, Make It Better is an example of how a soundscape and score can enhance and influence the atmosphere of a production. Andy Evan Cohen’s design was an incredible use of sound.
This was essentially a two-hander with some additional bodies. Brian Miskell as Ty embraced the youthfulness and candor of his character. Miskell was believable through his range of age. When it came to Nadia, Erika Phoebus may have been better suited remaining in the playwright’s seat. It could have helped her hear the woes of the second act. But one of her weaker moments is when she seemed to forget about stakes in some insanely high stake situations, notably Ty's overdose. There was no scream, no panic. Just a shake. There’s a sense of dropping complete believability when it comes to theater but the casting of Amy Higgs felt odd, especially as she appeared a good decade younger than her on-stage daughter.
If Kiss It, Make It Better ended after Act I, it would be triumphant. But Act II ruined the strong momentum. And it’s a shame because Theatre 4the People almost had a smash on their hands. So close yet so far.