'De Kus' Director Kenn McLaughlin Shares the Scoop On The Upstream Theater Production

By Krystin Arneson
In Culture

Kenn McLaughlin is artistic director of the Stages Repertory Theater in Houston, but when he was approached about coming up to St. Louis and directing “De Kus,” he couldn’t say no. He was attracted to the fact that it was an American premiere and intrigued by the challenge of taking a play that looked into some of our deepest fears, as he puts it, with only two actors.

The play follows the story of a lonely stand-up comic and an anxious housewife. They meet randomly on a country path—which becomes a path in a more metaphorical sense as the play goes on—and the two characters, originally “like oil and water,” as McLaughlin puts it, come to terms with each other at a profound level.

Still from "Der Kus" | Courtesy Upstream Theater

Still from “Der Kus” | Courtesy Upstream Theater

“Part of it is about the idea that we go through our lives very isolated: We take on our own baggage, and around us might be wonderful opportunities in strangers, who seemingly are very, very different than us, to kind of explore what we’re thinking and feeling,” says McLaughlin. “… It becomes quite beautiful as the play goes own—and also very painful. It’s very accurate to the way we live our lives.”

Despite the rather singular situation of the two characters involved, there’s a lot audiences can leave the theater contemplating. All of us experience strange collisions in our day-to-day, and the play explores what those can mean, and how humans, as mysterious as we can be, can influence each other.

“For me, personally, it has to do with facing the biggest challenges you face in life and not allowing yourself to imagine all the possible outcomes, as opposed to being trapped in your own sense of what’s good and bad,” says McLaughlin. “In the darkest moments of our lives are the opportunities for the greatest light. This paradoxical reality of life is that every moment can be filled with both promise and terror.”

Audiences should know that, while the ending is admittedly ambiguous (or does it end at all?), a note of hope rings throughout. “I find the idea that we can have an encounter with someone and that, if we’re open to it, it can be really life-giving no matter what the outcome is,” says McLaughlin. “If that’s the last moment we have on earth—what a wonderful opportunity.”

Of course, the play is called “The Kiss,” so audiences kind of know what’s in store. This means that everything that comes before it must build toward that moment—another necessary skill of the actors then (besides carrying the entire play between two), is making sure they can maintain that tension toward the inevitable. “The two actors I’m working with [Lisa Tejero and Eric Dean White] are so fantastic—so open and making such bold choices …” says McLaughlin. “It’s an interesting dilemna: The play is called ‘The Kiss,’ which kind of gives away one of the best moments of the play. And it happens very late in the play.”

But, he cautions: “The play is not what you expect it to be—it’s ungodly surprising at every turn. Just when you think you have your head around what the characters are doing, the carpet gets pulled out from under you. Just because it’s called ‘The Kiss,’ there’s always something more going on.”

The play runs through Oct. 25 at Kranzberg Arts Center.

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