- Associate Connecticut Theatre Critic
When I was asked to review “Kiss,” Guillermo Calderón’s Rubik’s cube of a political play now appearing at the Yale Repertory Theatre, I assumed that the most difficult part would be having to type out the piece one-handed due to a pesky finger injury. As it turns out, my bum knuckle is the least of my problems. “Kiss” is a fascinating play. It’s an ambitious and inventive work with a lot on its mind. It’s the kind of play I’d love to discuss and analyze at length, but “Kiss” contains a myriad of twists and turns I have been asked to not talk about. It’s probably for the better. The surprises in store at the Yale Rep are among the key pleasures of seeing “Kiss.” So, forgive me if I seem like I’m skirting the matters at hand. I am.
I can start, at least, by setting the stage before the first matryoshka doll opens and we begin wading knee-deep in spoiler territory. “Kiss” opens on a nice, if bland, apartment. Projected text says we are in Damascus, 2014. Hadeel, who lives there with her boyfriend Ahmed, is hosting a weekly get-together with her friends Bana and Youssif to watch a popular soap opera. But long before hysterics erupt on the television, drama begins at home. Youssif professes his love to Hadeel, his best friend’s girlfriend, mere minutes before Ahmed spills the beans that he plans to propose to Hadeel later that night. Youssif’s girlfriend Bana, an actress, is nowhere to be found. If that plot sounds straight out of a sitcom or a musalsalaat, Syrian’s answer to the telenovela, you wouldn’t be wrong. There’s a clear artificiality to the mechanics of the plot, enough that you begin to notice other things that are just a touch awry. The blocking is clunky and the boxy set (designed by Ao Li) seems to quiver every time someone slams the door.
The actors dress in Cole McCarthy’s vaguely Middle Eastern garb, but the women don’t wear hijabs and pepper their speech with plenty of four-letter words. Even the dialogue often feels strangely stilted or poorly translated, like Hadeel’s proclamation to Youssif that she “wants to smell [his] wallet, to kiss [his] leather jacket, to see [him] eat and to lick your [his] plate until it's completely clean.” One begins to wonder if Yale Rep’s quality has taken a huge nosedive since their last effort, the brilliant and enthralling “Father Comes Home From The Wars.” But no. Calderón has many tricks up his sleeve and soon the puzzle pieces begin to show a much clearer picture. Yet, before the intermission-less 90-minute work is over, even that initial image will be transformed a few times over.
What else can I say without giving away the game being played? I can mention that the cast is uniformly fantastic. Hend Ayoub (Bana), Ian Lassiter (Ahmed), James Cusati-Moyer (Youssif) and Sohina Sidhu (Hadeel) handle the tricky jobs they have been given with grace, one that asks them to authentically and committedly zigzag to and from a variety of theatrical styles. Rounding out the cast is Abubakr Ali and Rasha Zamamiri in roles I can only describe by the names listed in the program: interpreter and woman. I can mention that Evan Yionoulis’ direction is masterful, visually inventive and wildly smart. Her work is bolstered by Wladmiro A. Woyno R.’s seamless projections, Erin Earle Fleming’s flexible lighting and Michael Costagliola’s moody, Middle Eastern music and sound design. A section where the action seems to fast forward and skip willy-nilly, as if we were watching an old VHS copy of the play, is among the most interesting moments I’ve seen on stage in quite a while.
But ultimately, despite the best efforts of a top-notch production crew, “Kiss” is never fully able to form the complete thesis it wants to. It is too often scattered, too overstuffed with exposition and heavy-handed, oversimplified dialogue, too pleased with its own creativity. For every powerful moment, like the disquieting one explaining the play’s title, there are others that don’t come together, including a dramatically inert Skype conversation or the head-scratching final scene.
It’s a shame because a good half of “Kiss” is smart and compelling. Calderón has the germ of a brilliant play here, one with unique ideas about the way our inherent cultural biases bleeds into the art we make and the risk of interpreting another culture’s art without fully understanding it. The concept and structure are there, but it desperately needs an editor’s red pen and a more theatrical way to get its exposition across. Despite all of that, I can’t help but applaud a playwright who is taking a huge risk, both structurally and thematically, especially in a landscape where we so often see the same stories played over and over again. It’s a swing and a miss, perhaps, but watching a performer fall halfway through his high-wire act is always more commendable then trying to applaud someone who never leaves the ground.
I found myself frustrated by “Kiss,” both as a critic and an audience member. The former is due to the simple fact that my job here is to make claims without the usual means of backing them up. When it comes to the latter, “Kiss” is a fractured, imperfect play but one that ultimately captures a fascinating discussion I don’t see happening that often in the theater community. What is our responsibility when putting other cultures on the American stage? Pondering that question in the hours since I left the theater is, for me, well worth the trip.
Noah Golden is an associate theater critic and columnist for OnStage based near New Haven, CT. Throughout his life, he has been involved in many facets of theater from acting to directing to playing drums in the pit. When not in or writing about theater, Noah is a video producer and editor. Twitter: @NoahTheGolden.
Photos: Joan Marcus