By Karen Isaacs
During the first part of Kiss now at the Yale Rep through Saturday, May 19, you think you know what type of play this is: a melodramatic romantic comedy with some satire thrown into it.
But you will quickly realize it is more than just that. Guillermo Calderón has written a play that touches on so many fascinating topics including the interaction between playwright and cast, interpretation and cultural understandings. At a time, when the theatrical world is concerned with appropriate casting in terms of identity and representation and other groups in society are discussing cultural appropriation, this play seems to reflect these concerns.
It would be nice to say that Calderón has succeeded in illuminating these difficult topics; but he has merely touched the surface. Calderón is a Chilean playwright setting the work in war torn Syria and writing in English for the first time.
The play opens on a living set (nicely designed Ao Li) with an attractive 30ish woman (Hadeel) fliting around. The doorbell sounds; it is Youssif who has arrived early which unnerves Hadeel; the polite conversation soon turns to romance. Yousif announces he is love with her, and after some sparring, she acknowledges a mutual attraction. The problem is that she involved with someone who will soon be there. When Ahmed arrives, there are some farcical elements as he is planning on proposing. Soon another friend (Bana) who works at a TV station arrives late; she announces that she has kissed someone.
The scene ends having moved from farce to drama and very confused about Hadeel’s actual feelings.
But while you are wondering what comes next, the woman playing Bana arrives on stage. We now learn that what we had just seen was American actors playing these parts in a new play. So we have left Syria in 2014 and are now in the present (sort of). Laurel who played the part of Bana tells us how they found the play and tracked down the playwright. They are about to have skype interview with her. To avoid confusion, I will refer to the actors by the names of the Syrian characters they play; those are the ones listed in the program, though each actor has a real name as well.
During the course of the interview, the woman (is she really the playwright?) lets the cast know that they have missed a great deal of the significance of the play. In war torn Damascus, words don’t often mean what you think they do; she tells them that some of the words are code for other things associated with the chaos of the war. She points out that her stage directions reflect the consequences of some of these events.
In the final part of the play, we see the events from the earlier version played out by the cast with this new information.
So does it work? Not totally though it is not the fault of the cast. While some of the choices made by Calderón can be understood, particularly if you read the program notes, they still don’t work with the audience. The language is awkward and some phrases are off-putting. Instead of focusing on the totality, the audience is apt to focus on some these phrases and think they are weird.
During the interview, we get to see the real personalities of the actors from the obviously egotistical Ahmed (Ian Lassiter) to the removed Hadeel. Some of the questions they ask are good and others are self-serving. It is clear that Ahmed is only concerned with his part.
Evan Yionoulis directed this piece; her final production at Yale Rep before taking a new position at Juilliard. The challenge this play poses is not only the often awkward English but the combination of genres. The first part swings from farce to drama with an Albee influence. The interview attempts realism and the final part is played as pure melodrama. This confusion of styles has you feeling as though you are seeing three separate plays.
The melodramatic last part misses the mark. It would be interesting to see how the actors adjust their performances based on the new information the playwright has given them. But it is not clear what they have done; it has just become an exaggerated mess. We cease caring about the situation or the characters or even the awful consequences of the war in Syria.
The many references in the play to Syrian television melodramas is obviously intended to inform our approach to the work, particularly the last part. The four are gathering to watch a melodrama miniseries on TV, Bana is apparently an actress in one and the dialogue makes numerous references. In the notes, we learn that these, called musalsalaat, are not just soap operas but include satirical sketch comedy, thrillers and much more.
The actors do an excellent job with the challenges of playing two characters and two different approaches to the same situation. Ian Lassiter as Ahmed (the boyfriend) was particularly good.
How you react to this 90 minute piece may depend on how willing you accept it on its own terms. Several theater knowledgeable friends said they “hated it” – I found elements of it fascinating and the questions hinted at interesting. I look forward to a play that will address these issues in a more profound way.
Kiss is at Yale Rep through Saturday, May 19. For tickets visit Yale Rep or call 203-432-1234.
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