By Tristan Lejeune
There’s something very exciting going on in the black box space on Woolly Mammoth’s ground floor, but you might have to be a special kind of theatre-goer to enjoy it.
Kiss, an American premiere of a Chilean play about the Syrian civil war (phew!), is the kind of show that warps and mutates midway through, as if exposed to radiation. Its plot becomes riddled with narrative cancer cells, and what was once charming and funny is recast with violent gloom. It’s exhilarating and intelligent drama — though not nearly as “important” as it wants to be — but audience members who aren’t down for a bumpy, highly meta ride will be shaken off and discouraged before it’s over.
In a Damascus living room, two couples meet every week to watch a soap opera, discreetly ignoring the world burning down around them. Youssif is secretly in love with Hadeel, the girlfriend of his best friend Ahmed and best friend of his girlfriend Bana. One night, Youssif arrives early and he and Hadeel confess their passion for each other in florid, overwrought terms, but only minutes before Ahmed shows up with plans of his own to propose marriage. It’s a sudsy, hilarious mess, and all four actors are superb at the histrionic speeches, poetic betrayals and pursed eyebrows of its melodrama.
Gabriela Fernandez-Coffey’s Bana is rich with peppery self-righteousness, the last of the four characters to arrive, and it doesn’t feel complete without her. Tim Getman’s Ahmed is winningly warm and sweet, the nice guy who finds out late what’s been going on. Shannon Dorsey sticks the landing on all of Hadeel’s ridiculous emotional reversals — Kiss would be terrible if she weren’t so great. Funniest of all is Joe Mallon as Youssif, his face a rictus of horror as he’s constantly two steps behind, even when he is to blame.
But then. The scene ends, the lights come up and the actors shake off their Syrian roles. The play undergoes its first and biggest gear-shift as the cast tries to Skype with the playwright, seeking to gleam some insight from a woman wearing a disguise in a refugee camp. Turns out — shocker — the Westerners didn’t really understand what they were playing at. Bana doesn’t show up late because of work, she’s had an encounter with pro-Assad police. Hadeel doesn’t die from a broken heart, she’s been suffering from the aftereffects of a chemical weapon. And what do you MEAN you cut out all the gunshots from the background noise?!
Imagine the light changing on a “comedy” mask so it’s revealed to have been a “tragedy” one all along.
So they try it again. Not the whole thing but an abbreviation, played straight this time, with the horror of the years-long civil war truly closing in for this go-round. And then they keep going. The set breaks away, the story spins out into blood-and-bullets chaos, and Chilean playwright Guillermo Calderón’s script morphs from being about the war to being about The War, with fictional storytelling serving as both defense mechanism and offensive weapon.
Tonally, it’s enough to give you whiplash. Intellectually it’s a workout. As theatre, it’s a fresh and gratifying enterprise, unlike anything else currently being performed in D.C.
Directed by Yury Urnov, Kiss asks a lot, but it also offers up a great deal. It’s more than a vibrant experiment, it’s a self-contained laboratory, and for all of its weaknesses, there’s a separate strength to boot. I wish the players-within-the-play weren’t so unrealistically naïve about the Syrian conflict, for example, but I just couldn’t stop giggling at those tremulous music cues.
Production notes make it clear the story is really about the struggle to understand those crises and disasters so far afield from our own lives — the act of creation as a form of cross-cultural communion. That might feel like a bit of a cop-out for not having to present a real-world tragedy accurately (like a quartet of Americans playing Syrians), but the level of talent involved here more than overcomes any philosophical hiccups. Similarly, the play is a good five or 10 minutes too long, but the actors build up such good will with the audience, it’s hard to wish they would leave. The multimedia hell into which Kiss descends in its final minutes requires deep commitment from its cast and crew, and they fail us not.
Woolly Mammoth prides itself on its risky choices, and this Kiss is one gamble that should indeed make those involved proud.