… and sex, and stage-fright, fake kissing, real kissing … and sex.

Sound fun?

Let’s start in Ross, in Marin County, where the Ross Valley Players have just opened a four-week run of Lauren Gunderson’s surreal 2010 drama, ‘Emilie: La Marquise Du Châtelet Defends Her Life Tonight.’ That’s an unwieldy but intriguing title for an intriguing but unwieldy play, the true story, sort of, of the Emile Du Châtelet, an 18th Century mathematician, physicist and philosopher who scandalized French society by becoming the lover of the famous playwright-adventurer Voltaire – and challenged scientific assumptions by writing papers finding fault with some of the most esteemed thinkers of her day.

In Gunderson’s poetically convoluted version, the show’s heroine has just died. Robyn Grahn plays her with undeniable charm, yet always feels strangely distant from us, as if she is relating her story from beyond the mists of time, which she is. The script is written that way. Offered a chance to relive and review her life, possibly even getting to finish her life’s work — a book describing the Life Force as a mathematical equation — Emilie finds that actually touching these memory-people she encounters leads to a nasty electric shock.

Nice sound effects, by the way.

Anyway, whenever Emilie’s story gets “physical,” in that she remembers doing the nasty with Voltaire or any of her other occasional lovers, she avoids ethereal electrocution by calling in a younger version of herself, played by Neiry Rojo, to handle all the kissing and groping.

Director Patricia Miller takes a very bold, but ultimately unsuccessful risk in casting Catherine Luedtke as Voltaire. Luedkte, a first-rate actor, does everything she can, but the choice doesn’t work, taking an already over-analytical, over-complex story, and adding another level of unreality, pushing it all even further from the grasp of the audience’s emotions.

We want to feel for this brave, intelligent woman, but she never seems real enough, despite Grahn’s best efforts to make her so. Yes, the scientific stuff is frequently thrilling, but the sexy parts – mainly reduced to men chasing women while shouting “hoo-hoo-hoo” – are about as un-sexy as a Bugs Bunny cartoon.

Considerably sexier—and considerably more convincing—is 6th Street Playhouse’s production of Ruhl’s “Stage Kiss,” directed with welcome farcical fury by Marty Pistone. This one is definitely easier to wrap one’s head around, but only so much.
As written by Ruhl, this story of stage actors in love is so oddly structured as to require constant audience effort to absorb what’s happening some of the time. Structured as a play-within-a-play—followed by another play-within-a-play—‘Stage Kiss’ gives us two ex-lovers, He and She, played by Edward McCloud and Jenifer Coté. Both He and She are actors, thrown together in a very bad 1930’s play called ‘The Last Kiss.’

The other actors in the play-within-a-play are a delightfully underachieving bunch, played gleefully by Rusty Thompson, Lydia Revelos, Abbey Lee, and Tim Kniffin, all of them guided by a woefully unprepared Director, played by mollie boice.

‘Stage Kiss,’ as promised in the title, contains a whole lot of kissing – some serious, some very, very funny – and it’s entertaining to watch the way fake kissing can lead to real kissing, then back again. Though ultimately kind of pointless, vague, and a bit overly mean-spirited, Stage Kiss is an enjoyable enough romp, cleverly comparing the easy promises of love-struck fantasy with the hard-but-worthwhile work of creating real-life love.

‘Emilie’ runs Thursday–Sunday through February 5 at Ross Valley Players. www.rossvalleyplayers.com. ‘Stage Kiss’ runs Thursday–Sunday through February 5 at 6th Street Playhouse. www.6thstreetplayhouse.com

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