American theater has been mucking about in the sandbox and, meanwhile, the playground, the school, and the entire world have been burning down around us. Those were my first thoughts after leaving Woolly Mammoth’s US premiere of Kiss – an enveloping feeling at once depressing and tantalizing.
The second, and perhaps more important was inspiration: that the play shows us a way to pick up our artistic sand pail and use it as a fire bucket to douse the flames of the violent social strife that surrounds us.
Lest my earnest praise of the visceral and immediate politics of Kiss turn you off or give you the impression that the play is preachy or overbearing, let me add:
when you see this play (yes, I said when), through the first 45 of its 90 minutes, you might wonder what I’ve been smoking that would make me call a melodramatic farce a powerful geopolitical force.
Chilean playwright Guillermo Calderon and director Yury Urnov show us, for most of the evening, a whacky yet chuckle-producing Syrian soap opera. The subject is two couples’ romantic entanglements that become exposed with admissions of love and multitudinous marriage proposals on the night that those couples watch a soap opera together in an apartment. So, art imitates life imitates art, like The Young and the Restless, but set in 2014 Damascus instead of 1970’s Genoa City.
This cast is completely game for the soap opera style that asks them to go whole hog into hammy acting. Shannon Dorsey leads the pack as Hadeel, the object of all of the characters’ affections. Her ability to pull a face, then switch emotions on a dime, all while being able to flex smoothly between comic and dramatic tones is quickly making her one of my favorite local actors.
Her boyfriend Ahmed (who gets the “super cute, but not so bright” treatment from Tim Getman) is betrayed by Joe Mallon’s bad boy Youssif, who confesses his love for Hadeel and proposes marriage. Mallon has the desperate passion classic of soap operas down pat, but also rocks the faraway stares of confusion when his own girlfriend, Bana, discovers his ill-directed yearnings. Gabriela Fernandez-Coffey perfectly plays Bana as a firecracker who blows apart the love triangle until the whole apartment dissolves into a farcical cacophony.
How does any of these japes jibe with Kiss as a powerfully political play? Is it some murky metaphor that lurks under the surface? Or could there be some mathematical inevitability of adding time to comedy to produce tragedy?
Not quite. The second act of Kiss shifts tone abruptly and provides a moving, even heart-wrenching, context for the first half in a way that showcases Calderon’s brilliant playwriting structure and Urnov’s remarkable directorial discipline. I hesitate to reveal the mechanics of this switcheroo, but sate your curiosity on this morsel: when the reality of the situation is revealed, tendrils of memory reweave to form a tapestry of horror at both the situation presented and the fact that we, as audience members could laugh at such things.
That said, when you see this play (again, note the adverb), you shouldn’t hesitate to laugh at what is certainly funny, but do note details of what seems out of place. Set and Costume designer Misha Kachman subtly integrates clues to later revelations into his design, rewarding your attention to detail. He creates here in a much smaller space than his usual forte (Kiss takes place in Woolly’s Smith/Melton rehearsal hall downstairs, not in their main space), but that doesn’t stop the Russian Magician from executing his usual explosive tricks. You can catch these moments most easily next to the center aisle of the risers toward the back of the space, which are (perhaps unintuitively) the best seats in the house.
closes November 6, 2016
Details and tickets
James Bigsbee Garver designing sound and Max Doolittle on lights both show remarkable flexibility, especially as Kiss moves from soap opera to contextual explanation to Evel Knieval-ing right off the precipice of the avant garde. Most impressive of the designers, however, may be Alexandra Kelly Colburn who (with Kachman) has managed to create projections that strike a near-impossible balance: they are eminently readable while avoiding the addictiveness of screens that draws the eye away from human bodies onstage.
In the sense-barraging climate of our often vapid 24-hour news cycle, the heat of massive human suffering is often the first fire to be quenched by purposeful avoidance looking away. But here, in this space, with these bodies that are so like ours, I could not choose to look away and retain my humanity. After seeing Kiss, I can no longer go a day without thinking of the ongoing inferno that is the Syrian crisis. And I doubt that, when you see this play, you will be able to either.
But theater artists, take note. Piling on the crushing reality of suffering and damage, however true it may be, is not an effective means of reaching into the hearts of your audience and activating them to a cause. Kiss is so effective because it first introduces us to human foibles, amusing and heartening, to stoke the forge-fires of the heart before delivering the hammer, which is piercing because of (and not in spite of) its brevity.
This careful balance is what makes Kiss the total package for a night out at the theater: playfulness, politics, personality, and power, all wrapped up in one. For longtime Woolly Mammoth fans, you’ll recognize a new take on a classic Woolly formula that will bury itself into your memory. If you are new to this theater, you can have the joy of discovering one of the most relevant theaters around, both aesthetically and politically. Either way, you’ll find this the surprise smash straight play of DC’s fall theater season.
KISS by Guillermo Calderon. Directed by Yury Urnov. Featuring Shannon Dorsey, Gabriela Fendandez-Coffey, Tim Getman, Ahmad Kamal, Joe Mallon, and Lelia TahaBurt. Set and Costume Design: Misha Kachman . Lighting Design: Max Doolittle . Sound Design: James Bigbee Garver . Projections Design: Alexandra Kelly Colburn . Dramaturg: Kirsten Bowen . Produced by Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company . Reviewed by Alan Katz.