June 23, 2011 | by Patrick Folliard
Down by the seashore

‘The History of Kisses’
Through July 3
The Studio Theatre, 1501 14th St. NW
202-332-3300
www.studiotheatre.com

‘Purge’
Through July 3
SCENA Theatre
at H Street Playhouse, 1365 H St. NE
703-683-2824 begin_of_the_skype_highlighting
www.scenatheater.org

David Cale in ‘The History of Kisses,’ a piece he also wrote and directs. (Photo by Carol Pratt)

Standing on a stage disguised as a stretch of sandy beach, a lone actor dressed in casual street clothes breaks out into his rendition of an old English seafarer’s chantey. He beckons his listeners to follow him to unknown places and because his song is so full of longing, promise and mystery, we gladly go along for the journey.

“The History of Kisses” — David Cale’s terrific one-man show making its world premiere at Studio Theatre — is a collection of interconnected monologues detailing mostly random erotic encounters that take place close to and on the ocean. The work’s central and most likable character James (a gay writer like Cale) is temporarily holed-up in a seaside California motel working on a collection of stories about desire and epiphany. His motel neighbors and a few more established friends are the subject of his intimate sketches.

Slim and bald, Cale (who not only performs but wrote the show) wholly inhabits his characters whether it’s Julie, a generally sensible woman who happily recalls her brief but memorable affair with a sexy fat man she picked up on a flight from New York to San Francisco; or Artie, an old married builder from New York who shares about a long ago, chance romantic encounter with Judy Garland on the beach in Malibu.

Moments move from funny to poignant. In a dream sequence, Cale transforms into an Australian surfing Adonis who doubles as the motel’s front desk clerk and funnily gives pointers on how to physically please a “Sheila” (i.e. woman in his Aussie jargon). That same surfer is later brokenhearted when his new married girlfriend dumps him, but ultimately finds dramatic renewal from the sea when he’s literally uplifted by a herd of whales. Love-weary James shares his own chance encounter with a middle-aged dentist who has recently come out.

Cale is a masterful storyteller. His long and impressive bio includes films, Broadway and music. He’s written lyrics for Elvis Costsello and Deborah Harry.  “The History of Kisses” is his fourth solo work he’s done at Studio. While here and there British-born Cale’s American accents are a little shaky, the way in which he captures his characters’ physicality is uncanny — he can play both older women and young studs convincingly.  His quirky, vulnerable subjects are finely drawn. The material is personal, fun, and even a little heartbreaking. Ultimately, Cale offers an inspiring testimony to human resilience.

Across town at the H Street Playhouse where SCENA is presenting Finnish-Estonian playwright Sofi Oksanen’s “Purge,” life is dangerous and memories are more painful. Set in both 1991 Estonia as well 1950s Estonia under Soviet rule, the bold drama tells the story of three generations of women who are the victims of sexual violence and the ongoing trauma that ensues.

Tucked away in her rustic, neatly tended dwelling old Aliide (Kerry Waters) bides her time in a changing world. Despite misgivings, she gives refuge to Zara (Colleen Delaney), a badly beaten woman on the run from pimps. In flashbacks we learn the old woman’s younger self (Irina Koval) and her young niece were once abused by Soviet soldiers.

While most of the work’s horrific violence is implied, interestingly the work’s most combative scene is a knock down drag out fight pitting Zara against old Aliide. The altercation, which includes Zara shoving the old woman’s heads in a full bed chamber, actually leads to the two women fully understanding one other, forging a bond and in the end, redemption.

To portray the tale’s strong women, director Robert McNamara has assembled an impressive trio: Waters and Koval are equally strong yet flawed as young and old Aliide.  Delaney is known for giving theatergoers their money’s worth, and her emotionally strung out Zara is no exception. Eric Lucas offers some comic relief as Aliide’s communist doctrinaire husband, and Lee Ordeman is appropriately handsome and restless as young Aliide’s unrequited love. Stas Wronka and Armand Sindoni play the heavies (Soviet soldiers and pimps).

The playwright Oksanen identifies as bisexual. In 2009 she received an award from the organizers of Helsinki Pride for her activism on behalf of LGBT people in the Baltic states (Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania) and Russia. “Purge” also exists as a novel and a French film version is set to be released in 2012.

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