The price of a kiss
Sara and Callie are taking a walk late at night through the West Village. They have just been out at a bar and the night is young. Against the colourful high-rise of bricks and windows projected onto plywood screens, they give into the whirlwind of emotions long overdue and they kiss.
Enter an angry bystander (this is New York, after all) and what could have been the best night of their lives turns into an ugly nightmare. He attacks the two lovers violently, and Sara suffers injuries that sends her into coma.
This is where American playwright Diana Son’s Stop Kiss begins (we don't exactly know when the attack has happened: is it before the start of the play or after the first scene?), and it is being staged 23 years later at Shilpee Theatre in Battisputali. Directed by Loonibha Tuladhar and presented by One World Theatre (OWT) with support from the US Embassy, the revival is an English-language adaptation.
This is perhaps the first play staged in Nepal in recent times, and one of the first to focus on queer women. The premier on 25 November coincided with the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, and the play will run till 4 December to overlap with 16 days of activism.
Mitini Nepal estimates that 38% of lesbians and 62% of transgenders in Nepal continue to face violence in Nepal. Recently, countries like South Korea and Japan have used the Covid-19 pandemic as a ruse to discriminate against the LGBTQ+ community. The situation in Nepal is not any better. Discrimination aside, people who belong to the LGBTQ+ spectrum have few safe spaces to open up, and feel comfortable in their own skin.
But, surely, for many young progressives today, the play might appear demure or too gentle. “There isn’t enough sex,” one might say. Or “Why are there no mobile phones, so much of the trouble could have been avoided with a mobile phone!” After all, in the two decades since the play was first produced, much has changed in the world.
But a lot remains the same. Stop Kiss is not merely a lesbian play from the 1990s North America. It is also a reminder that despite vicious attacks and protests the LGBTQ+ movement around the world today has reached a point where its members can consider getting married, holding hands and expressing themselves.
And it is even more important in a country like Nepal where progress is incremental, and the reminder is encouragement to fight for one’s right to love without judgement and violence. Tuladhar and Kavita Srinivasan’s co-direction and the cast of Stop Kiss do not shy away from this scope and significance of their stage production.
Tuladhar admits she was nervous at first, unsure whether she was right for the role. “But violence against women and the queer community in our society takes many forms, and often it is quiet and we don't even realise that we are being violent,” she says. “The play felt important and necessary because through it people can reflect and make their voices heard.”
The show's co-director, Kavita Srinivasan echoes this. “Even now many women and queer people are not comfortable going out alone, especially at night,” she says. “But why should we have to fear to exist in our own society?”
Ranjana Bhattarai and Samapika Gautam shine as Callie and Sara, their chemistry natural and profound. Bhattarai plays Callie’s New York ‘up in the air’ traffic news reporter like a dancer who listens to the music rather than only memorise the steps. Gautam is the perfect counterpart, as grounded and methodical as Sara, a third-grade teacher.
The two women are riotous together – they dance, laugh and yell, their hands make wide gestures as they try to wordlessly communicate the stirrings in their hearts, perhaps felt by both for the first time. There is also tension between them, as they do not know the right thing to say or to do.
But Bhattarai and Gautam convince us that in their apparent differences is touching resonance. Both intense and hilarious, they carry the entire emotional weight of the play in their performances, going from unsure awkwardness of new acquaintances to wild, gushing nervousness of first-time lovers.
The supporting cast is also impressive. Gaurav Bista is perfect as the agonisingly heterosexual George, Callie’s on-and-off boyfriend. Loonibha Tuladhar steals the scenes as Mrs Winsley who witnesses the attack on the protagonists. Anahita Sarabhai is excellent as the Nurse, and Sushrut Acharya as Detective Cole and Bruno Deceukelier as Peter make the most of the few scenes they have.
But the real stars of the show are certainly the relentless crew-members, who have the toughest job at Shilpee every night: making sure everything looks seamless on stage and nothing falls over and breaks during the countless scene changes. The story is told out of order, so it unfolds in sets of ‘before’ and ‘after’ the attack.
The set design is aptly minimalist and modern, and the soundtrack of hit 90’s tracks (think Cyndi Lauper’s Girls Just Wanna Have Fun) adds to the whole ‘concrete jungle where dreams are made’ vibe of New York.
While the shadow of the altercation looms large, crass and imposing, and the play has much in common with a Greek tragedy – the violence happens off-stage and there is a sense of foreboding throughout (we find out about the attack and the coma very early on).
But Stop Kiss is far from the stereotype of sad and fatal LGBTQ+ stories that either end in death or separation. Instead, it is open-hearted, warm and determined to impact audiences of all ages and background.
“While the physical, external violence forms the backbone of the play, there is also a second kind at play here, borne of shame, judgement and discrimination,” adds Srinivasan: “Hopefully the play will create momentum for conversations to make our society truly inclusive, not just in plans and speech but also in action.”
Stop Kiss is playing at Shilpee Theatre in Battisputali until 4 December 2021. Runtime is 2 hours and 10 minutes with no intermission.
Tickets: Rs500 and Rs700 for front-row seats
Showtimes: 5:30PM, with an additional 1PM show on 4 December.