Review: KISS

by Lynn on April 3, 2017

in The Passionate Playgoer

At the Berkeley Street Theatre, Upstairs.

Written by Guillermo Calderón
Directed by Ashlie Corcoran
Set by Jung-Hye Kim
Costumes by Jackie Chau
Lighting by Rebecca Picherack
Sound by Christopher Stanton
Video designer, Alex Williams
Cast: Dalal Badr
Liza Balkan
Greg Gale
Carlos González-Vío
Naomi Wright
Bahareh Yarahgi

A play that appears to be about something innocuous turns into a play appearing to be about something of tremendous importance, that has the Canadian cast trying to understand the subtleties and symbolic references of another country, with more twists and turns, which results in a maddening exercise that could be best titled: “The playwright jerks the audience and cast under the guise of social and political commentary.”

The Story. Damascus, 2014. Two couples—Bana and Youssif and Ahmed and Hadeel– meet at Hadeel’s appartment to watch a soap opera. Youssif arrives early to tell Hadeel that he is in love with her. She is aghast. What will Bana say? Carlos arrives and confides to Youssif that he will propose to Hadeel. Bana arrives to confess that she kissed someone. And the story goes from there

The Production. The only indication that we are in a war-torn country at the top of the play is the projection, “Damascus 2014.” As the soap opera unfolds the presentation is a simple melodrama. The two couples get together but the relationships begin unravelling as Youssif and Hadeel try to hide what is going on between them from their respective partners. The delivery is earnest and sincere if a bit overwrought and matters become more and more complicated.

In way too short a time for the evening to be over the four actors take their bows. The woman who plays Bana introduces herself as Dalal, (the actress’s real name) and that she is also the director of that play. (Hmmm). She tells us that she found (all four of the actors in this section are Canadian) the play on the internet and it was written by Ameera Al Diri, a Syrian playwright and the cast tried to find her on the internet and thank her for the play and ask her some questions. By a circuitous route they did find Ameera Al Diri and interviewed her with the help of her translator, on Skype. The interview was projected on the back wall of the theatre.

The respectful cast asks her questions in turn. They mention the political situation in Syria and ask about the play. The actors are shocked when they learn that aspects in the play they thought innocuous—the kiss, the cough that a character has—are really symbolic of deeper things. More information is revealed.

The cast perform the play again in light of this new information. This time they are frantically energized; there is an edge to the dialogue they speak; it’s almost aggressive. The anger ramps up. They are playing the subtext now and we are all in on it. There is another revelation this time for the audience. And finally as the audience is leaving when the play is well and truly over, there is one final surprise.

The cast is committed and compelling in their intense efforts to be true to what they believe is a deeply political story and not the superficial melodrama on which they had been working. Director, Ashlie Corcoran keeps a firm hand guiding her cast as they negotiate the melodrama of the relationships of the two couples, then ramps up the pace and the intensity when the cast‘ revise’ their performance style to accommodate the information they have learned from Ameera Al Diri and her interpreter. The actors are all exemplary, whether they think they are performing in a melodrama or an intense political play.

Comment. I will quote from the press information to provide as much context as possible. From the press release: “What sets out as a Syrian melodrama quickly takes an unexpected turn—is anything really what it appears to be? Intersecting the personal, political and theatrical, KISS breaks open cultural barriers, challenging us to confront the limits of our own understanding….War and political upheaval have deeply informed the award-winning work of New York-based Chilean playwright/director/screenwriter Guillermo Calderón.”

Director Ashlie Corcoran says: “I am driven by questions of authenticity, interpretation and accessibility when bringing international work to Canada”

From Matthew Jocelyn, the Canadian Stage Artistic and General Director says: “KISS is an essential play, a necessary play. It is a rare opportunity to delve into experiences of sameness and difference and examine the ever-transient world we live in today….We are delighted to be collaborating with Theatre Smash ..and with partner-company ARC, to share this deeply thoughtful and highly unexpected portrait of creation in troubled times.”

In the scene with Ameera Al Diri it’s obvious she is in disguise with her blonde wig and sun glasses. Her interpreter is not disguised. That Al Diri needs a translator at all is puzzling since she does speak English. In fact the way Liza Balkan as the interpreter interprets almost makes her dialogue seem as if it’s a made up language. If it’s Arabic it is not clear. This in term makes one question the eye-brow knitting symbolic references to what the word KISS means as well as the cough from which one of the characters suffers, in the context of Syrian life.

At this point in the proceedings, I think this is a send up. I get the sense that the Skype scene is sending up the committed, concerned actors, and by extension, jerking the audience. When the actors re-enact what they thought was a melodrama they now treat it as if it’s an urgent political play and perform it at breakneck speed with intense body language and shouted dialogue. When they don’t feel that really works, they do it again only faster and louder. At this point my good eye is rolling. If the playwright’s intension (In know it looks like there are two playwright’s, there aren’t but I can’t explain it because that gives away a ‘surprise’) is to examine war and upheaval; to break open “cultural barriers, challenging us to confront the limits of our own understanding” then this isn’t the play to do it. With every twist and turn in the plot the intension becomes less and less clear until finally it just seems like a wank. Is KISS really a deeply thought play of substance and I’ve missed the point? Guillermo Caderón has not written the play so that there is any character to care about, and one can’t care just because we are in Syria. The playwright has to write the substance in his play, credibly, not just assume I can put in all the stuff he hasn’t. A wank.

A Theatre Smash and ARC Co-production in partnership with Canadian Stage.

Opened: March 30, 2017.
Closes: April 16, 2017.
Cast: 6;2 men, 4 women
Running Time: 80 minutes

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