Both in theater and in life, things are often not what they seem to be. The power of perspective is a strong influence in Kiss, a play by Guillermo Calderón currently in its west coast premiere at the Odyssey Theatre. Set in Damascus, Syria in 2014, this surprisingly political play has many layers to discover and unpack, resulting in an interesting piece that puts the role of the audience front and center.
At the request of the production team, who opted to distribute playbills only after the performance and included a spoiler warning in the press materials, I will be making more of an effort than usual to exclude any details of the plot from this review. Here is what I will say—Kiss takes place in a Syrian living room where four friends are about to gather to watch their favorite soap opera, a beloved tradition. The group of friends consists of two couples—Hadeel (Kristin Couture) and Ahmed (Max Lloyd-Jones), and Youssif (Kevin Matthew Reyes) and Bana (Natali Anna). From the moment Hadeel’s friends begin to arrive at her home it becomes apparent this gathering will be far more dramatic than is typical when Youssif, her boyfriend’s best friend, suddenly confesses his love to her. Their struggle over when, if, and how to reveal their true feelings is only further complicated when Ahmed arrives ready to propose to Hadeel and Bana, an actress on the very soap they worship, announces she kissed someone. About halfway through the play’s 80 minutes, a twist turns everything you have just watched on its head, and reexamining all that has occurred with new context illuminates much about Calderón’s true intentions.
Directed by Bart DeLorenzo, Kiss is designed to elicit very specific audience reactions, which it does successfully. These reactions are crucial for the reveals that are to come and only emphasize the point that what you see is in fact not at all what you get. The cast, comprised primarily of newcomers to Los Angeles theater, was spot on. The performances required are very distinct, and it likely will—and should—take you a few minutes to figure out what’s going on, but even then don’t get too comfortable. Even every element of the seemingly generic set is specifically chosen to convey a certain tone and atmosphere.
For the most part, I found the play to be quite effective in what it set out to do. At least up until the final ten minutes, which I found muddled and undermined the point and didn’t quite line up with the narrative “rules” established previously. To put it simply and vaguely, there are about 3 endings throughout the piece, and I cannot help but think sticking with the second would have left a more powerful, decisive, lasting impression.
I also promise that the play being set in Syria is vital. As a note in the program explains, soap operas, or “musalsalaat,” have been incredibly popular in Syria since the 90s, and particularly during the holy month of Ramadan, groups of friends and family gathering nightly to break fast and watch them together is customary. Since the Syrian civil war began in 2011, however, many involved in the making of musalsalaat have been blacklisted and forced to flee the country. Some shows have since resumed production in Lebanon, but the war has had a great effect on this industry and pastime, in addition to tremendously affecting all aspects of life and killing an estimated 400,000 people and counting.
It is probably difficult to tell what the story is actually about from this review, but I recommend going in knowing as little as possible and allowing the events to unfold as intended. Overall, Kiss is a surprising, compelling piece of theater, and, like much about it, the true meaning of the title will shock you.
Kiss runs at the Odyssey Theatre through June 18th. Performances are Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm and Sundays at 2pm, with select additional performances on certain Wednesday and Thursday nights. Tickets start at $25 with discounts available for students, and tickets for the May 5th and May 26th performances are only $10. For more information and to purchase, please visit www.odysseytheatre.com. For a list of charities you can donate to in support of those affected by the Syrian crisis, click here.