1501 14th Street, NW
Washington, DC 20005
“I’d always loved music. Songs on records taught me most of what I know about life. But I’d always been an audience member. The listener. The passive participant. But when I turned fifty I started to sing my own little songs. Hand made, home made songs recorded into a cassette player that had seen better days.” —Robert Grundy
In The History of Kisses, retired navy man Robert Grundy is an amateur shanty-writer, having taken to it later in life. His songs—passionate, raucous, occasionally wistful—counterpoint the stories of seaside romance that make up the rest of the play.
Seafarers have been singing, chanting, and yelping to keep time with the hard work of man-powered sea travel since the beginning of fishing. Ancient Greeks have records of singing on the Aegean, seventh-century Viking vessels had a chant leader, and come the mid-nineteenth century and the long-haul clipper ships of the British sailors, sea shanties were created in a rich tradition.
Shanties are work songs, usually call-and-response, which helped sailors coordinate hauling oars or hoisting ropes—and helped distract them from the arduous and monotonous nature of their work. Rousing, repetitive, and frequently quite sexually explicit, the traditional songs were usually improvised onboard, and rarely written down. The advent of steam travel in the 1890s brought an end to the golden age of sea shanties, although seafarers still sing to pass the time and make light the work. Shanties were brought to shore with the men who sang them, and from the early 1900s have been collected and popularized (in more and less bawdy forms.)
Today, most shanties are a land-lubber’s affair—from the musicologists who continue to curate and release sea music from the nineteenth and twentieth century; to contemporary bands like the Decemberists, whose songs include “Shanty for the Arethusa” and “The Mariner's Revenge Song”; to the amateur musicians and composers, like Robert Grundy, who find the call of the sea—and the shanty—irresistible.
Check out the MEDIA tab to hear a sample from one of the songs from The History of Kisses!
The Washington Post
Review of David Cale's 'The History of Kisses' at The Studio Theatre
By Celia Wren, Published: June 20
Those idiosyncratic characters issue their own siren calls, after a fashion, in “The History of Kisses,” a cluster of wry and quietly affecting interlinked stories, written and performed by David Cale. In this 90-minute one-man show making its world premiere at Studio Theatre, the actor and monologuist depicts ordinary men and women who experience erotic epiphanies and moments of personal insight thanks to chance encounters near, or on, the ocean.
Just like the sirens portion of “The Odyssey,” “The History of Kisses,” the fourth solo work Cale has performed at Studio, comes with its own soundtrack. The show’s appealingly vulnerable characters include Robert Grundy, a folk singer who has ensconced himself in a California motel to practice for a coming sea chantey festival. As Grundy, Cale strikes up a chantey every now and then, and the plangent tones and insistent rhythms complement a play whose dominant metaphor, the ocean, conjures up visions of danger, expansive possibility and longing.
Fueled by these motifs, “The History of Kisses” plays out on a lonely stretch of unkempt sand, punctuated by an easel and a concertina lying on a rock. (Luciana Stecconi designed the set.) Between rock and easel stands a wooden lifeguard chair, which is apt because the play’s hesitant, self-conscious protagonists are all in some way in need of rescue. That goes for the central character, James, an amused and bemused writer who’s attempting to knock out a story collection from temporary headquarters in a motel (he’s staying in the room adjoining Robert Grundy’s). Inspired and distracted by chanteys, memories and the amorous exploits of Craig, the Australian surfer at the motel’s front desk, James finds himself caught up in an unanticipated personal adventure.
Cale’s performance credits include “Radio Days” and other movies, roles in Broadway and off-Broadway plays, and writing lyrics for songs performed by Elvis Costello and Deborah Harry. Here he eschews costume changes, sticking with a single low-key outfit (black shirt, khakis, khaki moccasins) and distinguishing his characters by means of intonation, accent and body language. For instance, when the lanky performer sits, knees together, on the lifeguard chair, hands folded demurely on his lap, occasionally slicking a lock of (invisible) woman’s hair behind an ear, he’s Lisa, a gentle divorcee whose life changes after a serendipitous encounter on a Portuguese quay. When Cale wanders across the sand with a world-weary hunch and slight shuffle, he’s a grieving construction czar who just happens to run across Judy Garland on a beach. And when the performer’s voice plunges to a particularly low register, he’s the soda entrepreneur who yearns to be a park ranger.
No matter which figure Cale is inhabiting, there’s a wonderment in his face and voice and an openness to his presence that pull you into his stories, which become richer and more poignant as points of connection reveal themselves. Bittersweet timbres abound, but there are also some unrestrainedly funny moments, including a dream sequence that turns Craig into a sex-advice guru speaking in near-incomprehensible Aussie slang to Muzak-style underscoring.
Designer Andre Pluess helps flesh out the play’s fictional world — and its sense of lives brushing against one another — with sound effects that include lapping waves, purring boat motors and noises seeping through motel room walls. And Beverly Emmons’s lighting clarifies emotional and narrative segues, as well as (in one particularly endearing sequence) conjuring up an aquarium full of sea horses.
In the play’s climactic scene, Emmons’s lighting and Cale’s expressive face transform a moment of seaborne peril into an ecstatic spiritual revelation. After all, in “The History of Kisses,” the sea isn’t just a symbol of adventure and a catalyst for trysts: It’s also a source of baptism-like renewal.
Wren is a freelance writer.
The History of Kisses
Written, directed and performed by David Cale. Songs by David Cale. 90 minutes. Through July 3 at Studio Theatre, 1501 14th St. NW. Call 202-332-3300 or visit www.studiotheatre.org.
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Director, Actor, Playwright
Born in Luton, England, Mr. Cale began his career as a singer with local rockbands, subsequently performing standards in pubs and singing Gershwin and Irving Berlin songs on the London Underground. At the age of twenty he immigrated to America. Living in New York City he began to write his own songs, which evolved into dramatic monologues that often incorporated live music. Mr. Cale is the author and performer of the solo shows Palomino, for which he won the 2010 SF Bay Area Critics Circle Award for Best Solo Performance; A Likely Story; Lillian (Obie Award); and Deep in a Dream of You (Bessie Award for Outstanding Creative Achievement); as well as Somebody Else’s House; Smooch Music; and The Redthroats (Bessie Award for Outstanding Creative Achievement), which he performed at The Studio Theatre. His solo work has been presented throughout the U.S., including Off Broadway at Playwrights Horizons; The Public Theater; Second Stage; NYTW; and The New Group, and venues including Performance Space 122; The Kitchen; The Museum of Modern Art, New York; Walker Art Center, Minneapolis; Kansas City Rep; The Goodman Theatre, Chicago; and at the Center Theatre Group’s Kirk Douglas Theatre and Mark Taper Forum, Taper Too in Los Angeles. His monologues have been featured on Public Radio’s This American Life, NPR’s The Next Big Thing, for which he was a regular contributor, and the HBO Special Bette Midler’s Mondo Beyondo. He wrote the book, lyrics, co-composed the music for, and played Floyd in the musical Floyd and Clea Under the Western Sky, which premiered at The Goodman Theatre, and went on to receive an Outer Circle Critics Nomination for Outstanding New Off Broadway Musical for its production at Playwrights Horizons. Other show credits include the duet Betwixt with The New Group; and The Blue Album, in collaboration with Dael Orlandersmith, at Long Wharf Theatre. He is the recipient of a Solo Performance Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts and two NYFA Fellowships. He was a participant in the Sundance Institute Screenwriters Lab and was writer-in-residence at the 2009 Sundance Theatre Lab. Mr. Cale has written lyrics for songs including Imitation of a Kiss, which has been sung by Elvis Costello, Deborah Harry, and Jimmy Scott and The Jazz Passengers. He wrote and narrated the text for choreographer Charles Moulton’s dance Chickens, performed by Mikhail Baryshnikov’s White Oak Dance Project. As an actor, he has performed in plays on and Off Broadway including The Threepenny Opera at The Roundabout; and Curtains (Ensemble Obie Award), Mike Leigh’s Two Thousand Years, and Mouth to Mouth at The New Group. He made his film debut in Woody Allen’s Radio Days and has subsequently appeared in Pollock, The Slaughter Rule, Two Lovers, and the upcoming Coming Up Roses.
Luciana Stecconi (Set Designer) recent designs include sets for Tynan; In the Red and Brown Water; The Year of Magical Thinking; Stoop Stories; Amnesia Curiosa, created and performed by rainpan43; Souvenir; and Lypsinka: The Passion of the Crawford at The Studio Theatre. For The Studio Theatre 2ndStage, she has designed Mojo, Songs of the Dragons Flying to Heaven, 60 Miles to Silver Lake, That Face, A Beautiful View, All That I Will Ever Be, and Crestfall. Other regional credits include Something you Did and Zero Hour for Theatre J; Wandering Alice, created and performed by Nichole Canuso Dance Company for the Philadelphia Live Arts Festival; and The Two Orphans and Scenes From An Execution for the Brandeis Theatre Company. Her awards include the 2006 Ira Gershwin prize and the 2010 Mayor’s Art Award for Outstanding Emerging Artist. She received her M.F.A. in Theatre Arts from Brandeis University.
Beverly Emmons (Lighting Designer) has designed for Broadway, Off Broadway, regional theatre, dance, and opera both in the United States and abroad. Her Broadway credits include Annie Get Your Gun, Jekyll & Hyde, The Heiress, Stephen Sondheim’s Passion, The Elephant Man, and Amadeus, for which she won a Tony Award. She has worked at The Kennedy Center, Arena Stage, The Guthrie Theater, The Alley Theatre, and The Children’s Theatre of Minneapolis. Her Off Broadway design credits include The Vagina Monologues; multiple pieces with Robert Wilson, including Einstein on the Beach and the CIVIL WarS Pt V.; and many pieces with Joseph Chaikin and Meredith Monk. Her designs for dance include works by Martha Graham, Trisha Brown, Alvin Ailey, and Merce Cunningham. She has been awarded seven Tony Award nominations, the 1976 Lumen Award, 1984 and 1986 Bessies, a 1980 Obie for Distinguished Lighting, and several Maharam/American Theater Wing Design Awards.
Andre Pluess (Sound Designer) has designed sound on Broadway for 33 Variations, The Clean House (Lincoln Center), I Am My Own Wife, and Metamorphoses. Recent projects include Arabian Nights and Legacy of Light at Arena Stage; Cymbeline at The Shakespeare Theatre Company; after the quake, Argonautika, The Blue Door, Honour, Metamorphoses, and The Secret in the Wings at Berkeley Repertory Theatre; Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and The Merchant of Venice at Oregon Shakespeare Festival; Equivocation at Seattle Repertory Theatre, Ghostwritten at The Goodman Theatre; Marcus, Or The Secret of Sweet at ACT, Palomino at Center Theatre Group, and Macbeth and Much Ado About Nothing at California Shakespeare Theatre (artistic associate), as well as the score for the film The Business of Being Born. He is based in Chicago, where his credits include numerous productions for About Face Theatre (artistic associate), Court Theatre, Lookingglass Theatre Company (artistic associate), Northlight Theatre, Victory Gardens (resident designer), and Steppenwolf Theatre. He has received Joseph Jefferson Awards/Citations, an Ovation Award, Barrymore Award, Drama Critics Circle Award, and Drama Desk/Lortel nominations.
An intoxicating mix of spicy stories, amorous encounters, and original sea shanties. James is a writer, and has sequestered himself in an oceanfront motel to finish his collection of tales of seaside romance—only to get drawn into the romantic goings-on around him. The cast of characters ranges from the Australian surfer who works the check-in desk to a dentist who mistakes the writer for his online date. Accompanied by the sea shanties from an English folk singer rehearsing in the room next door, The History of Kisses is a lyrical meditation on the nature of desire and fate.
David Cale writes songs, monologues, plays, and musicals. Acclaimed as one of America’s top solo performers, his award-winning solo pieces have been seen around the country. He’s performed on and off Broadway as well as on screen (Radio Days, Pollock). He’s written lyrics for songs recorded by Jimmy Scott and The Jazz Passengers, and Deborah Harry.
His solo show Somebody Else’s House inaugurated The Studio Theatre’s Special Events in 1993, and The History of Kisses marks his fourth solo piece at The Studio Theatre, following Smooch Music and The Redthroats.
You can get a taste of David Cale’s writing and performances here:
This American Life
“Escape the Box”— Stories of people trying to escape the box of their own lives, and create new lives. The excerpt from Lillian, one of David’s full-length pieces, begins at 30:57 of the full performance. (You’ll hear Ira Glass describe Cale’s performance.)
Bette Midler’s Mondo Beyondo
Mondo Beyondo is a 1988 HBO Comedy Special which showcases Midler as an Ed Sullivan style presenter of wild and outrageous comedy acts.
A YouTube link to David Cale’s performance: www.youtube.com/watch?v=t4j2jF-xbbs
The Next Big Thing, WNYC:
David did a series of characters for this New York-based radio show.
“Sunny Side Up”
This week, we meet Hayley Collins, a young woman who’s found a unique way to benefit from some men’s preference for a woman with a British accent. Written by David Cale, performed by Cara Seymour. www.wnyc.org/shows/tnbt/2005/apr/01/sunny-side-up/
“The English Rose of Indiana”
Elsie Arnold is a proper English woman. Only she’s not thoroughly English anymore. She’s lived in America’s heartland ever since she became a war bride in the 1940s. David Cale imagines the inner life of this feisty but mournful woman, finding her solitary way as the years pass by. Written by David Cale, performed by Jenny Sterlin. www.wnyc.org/shows/tnbt/2004/jul/02/the-english-rose-of-indiana/