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Body Swap: A Young Woman and an Old Fart Exchange Skin Sacks in Prelude to a Kiss at Ensemble Theatre

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Most of us, at one time or another, would like to inhabit a different body. It's really kind of a bore having to navigate the world in the same bundle of skin and bones you were born with.

Of course, countless playwrights have dipped into that well of human dissatisfaction with the status quo. Shakespeare has so many people switching identities and genders in his plays it seems like a dressing room at a drag ball. And in plays such as Goodbye, Charlie, main characters occupy other bodies with hilarious consequences.

So it is with Prelude to a Kiss by Craig Lucas, now at Ensemble Theatre. This piece, which was also a flick starring Alec Baldwin and Meg Ryan, imagines a young woman and an old man exchanging bodies.

There are obvious jokes to be had while working this admittedly well-worn conceit, but Lucas has some more subtle and serious thoughts in mind. And this production, as directed by the savvy Martin Friedman, finds many of those nuances.

Peter and Rita meet cute and find they are each just eccentric enough to be attracted to the other. He is a nerd working with microfiche and she is a socialist bartender who'd rather not engage with the world.

After a whirlwind courtship they find themselves at the wedding ceremony, where an unknown old man shows up, asks for a kiss from the bride, and...whamo! The old coot is inside her lithe young body and she is rattling around inside his wrinkled and decrepit bod.

This change, of course, isn't readily apparent to anyone, especially Peter, who is intent on enjoying his honeymoon. But he soon notices that Rita is behaving differently, changes that don't comport with the typical personality tweaks common to newlyweds.

As Rita, Kelly Strand is a wonderful bundle of twitches and feints at the start, creating a character who is unique and adorable on her own terms. But when she is called upon to play the old man inhabiting Rita's body, Strand doesn't provide enough physical clues to show how the septuagenarian is dealing with the freedom and weirdness of having this young (and female) body to romp around inside.

This makes the scene at the honeymoon resort less effective than it might be, as Rita confuses Peter with her sudden interest in talking to fellow tourists and engaging in various sporting activities.

The old man (who is really Rita inside) is played by Michael Regnier with a lovely sensitivity, and you can still see some of her quirks. Plus, he almost gets the physicality exactly right, at one point folding clothes with the off-handed precision women demonstrate when doing everyday domestic chores.

The linchpin of the story is Peter, and in that role Aaron D. Elersich conveys a baffled kindheartedness, until he starts pursuing the strange personality shift of his bride. And when Pete discovers Rita behind the beard of the old guy, Elersich shows how love and commitment work even when other events go awry.

Other strong members of the cast include Laura Starnik as Rita's clueless-yet-sometimes-hip mom, Marcia Mandell as ditzy Aunt Dorothy and Benjamin Gregg who wrings more laughs than you might expect out of his small role as Peter's pal Taylor.

Written by Lucas back during the emerging AIDS crisis, Prelude can be read as an analog to that tragedy, as the disease turned vibrant young people into wizened shells of their former selves. Still, love persisted in many cases. And Lucas, who also wrote other AIDS-themed scripts such as Longtime Companion, has a gentle and knowing touch with a trope than is often played just for chuckles.

Through Dec. 15 at Ensemble Theatre, 2843 Washington Blvd., Cleveland Heights, 216-321-2930, ensemble-theatre.com.

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