3 min

Neither lesbians nor victims, exactly

Identity is a complex, collaborative affair in Stop Kiss

'I used to be the blueberry muffin lady'. When Callie and Sara's first coming-out kiss ends in a brutal park bashing, Callie struggles to define her identity for interrogators who would rather summarize her in soundbytes. Credit: Xtra West files

As recent debates about The L-Word can attest to, there is no one way to be a lesbian. She need not wear Birkenstocks. Nor need she wear lipstick. She need not drive a rust-marbled truck, nor a vehicle with built-in guidance system.

Stop Kiss, the Obie Award-winning work by New York playwright Diana Son, takes for granted these complexities of self-identification.

But Son knows that one person does not an identity make. We, all of us, are in some way collages of other people’s impressions.

“I am consistently interested in the conflict between how other people identify you and the more complex way in which you know yourself,” Son once said.

Stop Kiss, which ran at Studio 16 Feb 17-26, hinges two story lines around a single moment-a kiss.

Two women, Callie and Sara, meet in funky, wasabi-pea-munching New York and shyly become gaga for each other. A comical romance builds, culminating in a giggling kiss in a park. That kiss provokes a vicious attack, placing Sara in a coma.

Heavy stuff. But Stop Kiss is ultimately a comedy. The script is fast, furious and funny, and, on opening night, the actors kept up.

Lori Triolo, playing the city-seasoned Callie, exudes an infectious energy on stage and her portrayal of a harried traffic reporter just trying to catch up with her own life comes across achingly well.

At her local café, where post-attack media attention has made her “the lesbian,” she wistfully remembers, “I used to be the blueberry muffin lady.”

In police interrogation scenes, Callie finds that words like “coming out,” “dyke,” and “lesbian,” are actually part of her pain, now that Sara is laid-up in hospital. Forces around her demand succinct explanations for who she is and what she’s done. But those simplicities don’t seem to be available.

Director Kate Twa allows audiences to view this love story as being unique-particular to these two women, not affiliated with a rainbow coalition. And Triolo’s performance demands the same; what happened in that park, before and after the kiss, cannot be summed up in a headline.

City parks are highly charged places. They are air bubbles of wilderness in so-called civil landscapes. They are havens for acts that some call lewd and some call romantic. And they are also theatres of violence.

Aaron Webster’s murder, which was executed under the protective veil of Stanley Park’s shadows, will always remind us of what is possible on the fringe of an “enlightened” city like our own.

While the production of Stop Kiss nearly coincided with the sentencing of Webster’s last convicted attacker, its poignancy reaches beyond topical affairs.

Twa says Stop Kiss shows us the story “just before the headline.”

Callie and Sara are not victims first and foremost-nor are they lesbians, as such, since they have only dabbled with exploring that identity. They are human, and Twa’s presentation of their humanity encourages audiences to read these characters as being more complex than a pair of sensationalistic tools for the queer agenda.

I wonder, did we grant as much humanity to Aaron Webster? To what extent does our community hijack the memory of our martyrs? How much of a person’s identity do we effectively erase when we rally around their “victim” status? Who was Aaron Webster?

Twa knows how to beg the question. Her Lyric School of Acting, with a base of 400 students, is fuelling those questions in a city starving for intelligent theatre.

Productions like Stop Kiss, full of queer content, but not produced by a queer company, assure us that our stories are more complex than an act of navel-gazing. Our identities, for better or worse, are collaborations.

Does that notion have a particularly queer ring to it, perhaps? Homo-poet WH Auden once noted: “The image of myself which I try to create in my own mind in order that I may love myself is very different from the image I try to create in the minds of others in order that they may love me.”