A kiss is all Antonio Ligabue wants. “Gimme a kiss,” actor Marco Michel demands, as Ligabue, as he stumbles onto the stage from the back of the theater. He repeats it sweetly, begs it, and shouts it throughout the 75 minutes of “A Kiss.” In the play’s final moments, he wails it to the heavens. But at first, as he solicits the audience, he stops to ask, “Am I bothering you?” In the era of “Me Too,” the “gimme a kiss” refrain of this piece, based on the life of 20th‑century painter Antonio Ligabue, takes on a more complicated meaning. Born in Zurich to an Italian mother, Ligabue spent his childhood in the care of a Swiss‑German couple. He was exiled to Italy at 19, and spent the rest of his life in and out of psychiatric hospitals. Between his periods of institutionalization, several Italian artists took notice of his talent and supported his career. Before he died, there was an exhibition of his work in Rome. The play emphasizes the tragic intersection of Ligabue’s genius and madness. But in “A Kiss,” the specific focus of writer/director Mario Perrotta seems to be that Ligabue never got the love he craved. Ligabue curses his birth mother’s name for never having kissed him and for abandoning him when he was nine months old; he violently tears down a drawing of her. He says that Elise, his adoptive mother, loved him; she had “the voice of love, the voice of peaches.” Yet every time he asked, “Mother, will you give me a kiss?” she avoided him, saying, “next time.” Later, in Italy, Ligabue paints a picture of a washerwoman and offers it to her. “If I give you this painting,” he asks, “Will you like me? Will you marry me? Will you give me a kiss?” When she refuses, he curses her, too. All human beings want to be loved. For a person to have never felt love is tragic indeed. But the violence inherent in Mr. Michel’s portrayal of Ligabue sparks more concern than sympathy. “Gimme a kiss” becomes a demand rather than a request, which raises the larger question of whether people “deserve” love. As a general principle, the obvious answer is yes. All humans deserve love and compassion. But no one is entitled to another person’s affection. Ligabue projects his desire for his mother’s affection onto all women. It seems that Ligabue found compassion and something like love in the Italian artists who supported his work, who, at times, sheltered him in their own homes and helped him get released from mental institutions. But at the end of the play, we learn that we, the audience, are attendees at Ligabue’s funeral ‑ people who, as Ligabue tells it, never appreciated or loved him in life, but who mourn his genius (and admire his now‑valuable paintings) after his death. In context, of course, a 20th‑century Italian painter is worlds away from the contemporary movement of “Me Too,” and the demand for a kiss represents a larger cry for love and affection. But the frame of reference is unavoidable, and it colors Mr. Perrotta’s story in a darker light. The audience may feel sympathy for Ligabue, but his demands test the limits of that sympathy. Marco Michel is harrowing as Ligabue. His nervous ticks are relentless. He accosts audience members with an intense, unwavering gaze. He maintains a near constant tension in his body. He embodies both the demons and the objects of desire in Ligabue’s life, and performs in three languages. Perhaps most impressively, he creates life‑size charcoal drawings of Ligabue’s memories on three vertical panels. By the piece’s end, Mr. Michel’s face and clothes are smudged with charcoal, and his face is dripping with sweat. It is an intense and impressive performance. But the piece would benefit from more respite from the intensity. Even the tender moments with Ligabue’s adoptive mother have an underlying note of unease. With little relief from Ligabue’s own tension, its impact diminishes. But what strikes me most about “A Kiss” is the way Ligabue reminds me of the people experiencing homelessness in New York City. The ones who sleep on the subways, tote their belongings in shopping carts, and fashion clothing out of blankets and bags. The ones with often obvious mental health problems, but with beautiful singing voices, for example, whom the city doesn’t seem to find a way to help. In the end, we could all benefit from more compassion and care towards our fellow humans. “A KISS – Antonio Ligabue” Performed by Marco Michel Written & Directed by Mario Perrotta Production Design by Peter Maurer Lights & Music by Daniel Tschanz November 22 at 9 PM, and November 23 at 2 PM Photo by Luigi Burroni 2019 United Solo Theater Festival Theatre Row 410 West 42nd Street New York City
ALLYCE MORRISSEY is a dramaturg based in New York City. She holds an MA in Dramaturgy and Writing for Performance from Goldsmiths, University of London, and a BA in English from Villanova University. She also works in entertainment advertising.