Sleight of hand: ‘Kiss & Cry’ offers a world of dreamlike illusion

Photo by Marteen Vanden Abeele

Photo by Marteen Vanden Abeele

Susan Isaacs Nisbett
(Ann Arbor, Oct.11, 2014)

A miniature train loops around a track through a bucolic landscape where cows graze alongside an improbable giraffe. Toy people sit on park benches, watch their neighbors through dollhouse windows, stand in little frozen clusters on a hillside dotted with plastic trees. A stage crew creates fantastic effects with flashlights and smoke, sand and water.

We hear a love story, make that five, actually. A narrator speaks of loss, of a woman’s fleeting amorous attachments that were supposed to be forevers, of her lifelong search for a boy whose hand she once touched on a train. Music plays. And hands dance, becoming the lovers of the narrator’s stories and infusing life into the inanimate toy figures on stage.

This is the magical world, dreamlike, childlike, funny and moving, of “Kiss & Cry,” a production of Belgium’s Charleroi Danses conceived by choreographer/dancer Michele Anne De Mey and filmmaker Jaco Van Dormael. The University Musical Society presented “Kiss & Cry” Friday at Power Center; additional performances follow Saturday evening and Sunday afternoon.

It’s a peek-a-boo, now-you-see-it, now-you-don’t world that “Kiss & Cry” offers: you can watch the action live as DeMey and partner Gregory Grosjean perform their “nano-dances” on the miniature sets scattered around the stage; or you can see the action supersized on screen as a crew on stage films it in real time. What occurs in a penumbral space on stage becomes bright on screen. What is small becomes large. What we can see in one space is invisible in another.

And what we can’t see is as important as what we can. When hands are magnified on screen, it’s what’s in the frame that counts. So if fingers become legs – and they do – or a thumb becomes an arm – and it does – then a forearm can be a trunk and the fact that there’s no head to be seen just means it’s not in the picture. We know it’s there.

That we can imagine what is not shown is a tribute to the articulate hands and minds of De Mey and Grosjean; their hands woo and coo, skate and party, caress and cajole, quarrel and make up. And there are moments – and not just in a pillow-talk bedroom scene for hands as lovers – where it almost feels voyeuristic to be watching, so intimate are their encounters. It all makes for terrific theater.

But perhaps the most beautiful moment of the show – which runs about 90 minutes without intermission – comes when De Mey and Grosjean are clearly enough illuminated, head to toe, so that we can shift between watching their duet — contained in space but filled with embraces and passionate intakes of breath — and the screen image, which just captures their hands emerging out of blackness. It’s like hearing the same story twice, from slightly different points of view, and it’s heady and emotionally resonant.

The only thing that tore me from the spell cast by “Kiss & Cry” was the sign on the miniature train station on set: Ann Arbor. I’m sure the company changes it for each town, but it was both a little too cute and too much a reminder of an Amtrak station in town that looks nothing like the storybook Victorian one depicted.

The false notes in this evening of theater ended there, happily.

Like some of the Baroque arias that “Kiss & Cry” uses – the score ranges from those to music by Cage, Gershwin, Prevert and Gorecki – the script, by Van Dormael and Thomas Gunzig, favors the ritornello. As the heroine buries memories of each of her past loves, oubliette-like holes open in the snow, sand or sea to swallow her sorrows and her lovers. We see recurrent images of miniature hands nestled in memory boxes; they are like milagros, sacred talismans of what was and still could be. And the narration halts between each love affair for a pithy, offbeat simile. Some love affairs, we are told, for example, are like onions; others are like cheese graters. You’ll have to go to find out why. I wouldn’t want to spoil it.

There are additional performances of “Kiss & Cry” Saturday at 8 p.m., Sunday at 2 p.m., Power Center for the Performing Arts, 121 S. Fletcher St. Tickets: University Musical Society, (734) 764-2538, and online at ums.org.

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