Cover Story: A Kiss By Any Other Name

As love turns onstage

We all know how bad love can suck, because we've all experienced it.

But sometimes we feel a little better when we hear a story about someone else for whom it's sucked even worse. Not that any of us want to wish bad luck in love on our friends and acquaintances ... well, at least most of our acquaintances.

But that's where the stage comes in handy, because we can watch people in the direst of emotional circumstances learn from how they handle — or mishandle — their situations. From that we can either be better prepared for the next time it happens to us, or at least be relieved that our own sad situation could actually be worse.

Of course there are the usual suspects from the classics: Romeo and Juliet suffered from bad family karma, tried the end run around mom and dad, and ended up dead from their trickery.

That theme has been a popular one through the years, and frequently gets translated into modern-day terms: Witness Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim's West Side Story, in which Tony and Maria find themselves on opposite sides of gangs, the contemporary equivalent of the Capulets and the Montagues.

Shakespeare's plays bear witness that even four centuries ago love could truly suck, although the Bard usually put it more eloquently.

Probably the most horrific example in Shakespeare's 39 works is Othello, the military leader whose profound and obsessive love for his wife, Desdemona, is turned from passion to jealousy to murder by the evil underling Iago who manipulates the general with innuendo.

And pity poor Desdemona.

Her reputation and life are sacrificed to misunderstanding and Machiavellian meddling. It's enough to make you think that love might not be worth it.

Although theater has its share of tales of love gone wrong, opera has pushed the celebration of amour gone awry to an art form.

How about Carmen? The cigarette girl of the title is a love-'em-and-leave-'em type, but one she loves and leaves, Don José cannot handle the changeover. His position is a bad one — a jealousy of a fancy-pants toreador whom Carmen moves on to.

It's even worse for Carmen, when the Don begins to stalk her.

It doesn't end well.

Many operas are about tragic love, run-ins that have run off or at least love that's gotten lost in the shuffle.

Take La Bohème, a tale of impoverished artists living in the Latin Quarter in Paris. Mimi and Rodolfo come together, fall apart, then Mimi dies of consumption.

If that story sounds familiar, it's because Puccini's sad tale was updated in Jonathan Larson's Rent, about impoverished artists in New York City with AIDS as the affliction. Or how about Madama Butterfly and its latter-day inspiration Miss Saigon?

A military man woos a naíve, devoted young woman in a land where he's stationed, resulting in a child. Situations change and his life goes on; she can't get over him and has to raise the kid. When she learns his affections have evolved, well, you can imagine the results.

However, it's not just the classics that give us a window onto bad love.

Sondheim's Passion is about Fosca, an unattractive woman who has spent her life in seeming pain and anger, unloved and untouched. When she finally focuses her attention on a man — a military guy under her dad's command — he's already involved in a heady affair with a gorgeous woman.

Somehow she gets his attention and he is unwittingly and then unwillingly drawn into her world. Once they are together, it's still a bad scene that is portrayed with lots of impassioned theater music.

Fosca can't handle the intensity of the emotions. Once she finds it, she literally dies of love.

Finally, there's the archetypal tale of love that has turned into something altogether bad: Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

George, an alcoholic college professor, is married to Martha, the strong-willed daughter of the university president. Their marriage has been soured by some tragedy (a lost child), but even more so by two selfish people who spend more time involved in affliction than affection.

The play's story is about an evening of combat between the two — probably most memorably conveyed in a film version featuring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, a pair whose marital histories are subject for another story altogether about the vicissitudes of relationships.

The night drags along another young couple. By the way, if you've never seen Albee's grab-you-by-the-ears play performed, you can catch a production this spring (May 5-29) by the Cincinnati Shakespeare Festival. The play has reached the status of a classic such that a theater focused on the classics like CSF sees it appropriate to produce it.

That's one more piece of evidence proving that not only does love suck, it spins off the kind of towering, conflicted emotions that fuel great art onstage.

We can watch and then be glad that it was someone else's suffering, not ours.

Vicarious pain is preferable to personal angst.

But beware you don't pick one of these stories for your first date.

You might live to regret it — or worse. ©

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