Chilean playwright Guillermo Calderón’s wartime drama “Kiss” in West Coast premiere
From left, Kristin Couture, Natali Anna , Kevin Matthew Reyes, Max Lloyd-Jones / Enci Box

LOS ANGELES—Filmgoers this past year have had the opportunity to see Pablo Larraín’s fantasy biopic Neruda, about the world-renowned Chilean Communist and Nobel Prize-winning poet Pablo Neruda. It featured a brilliantly imaginative screenplay by Guillermo Calderón, hailed as “Chile’s most acclaimed playwright-director of the last two decades” by the Los Angeles Times.

When I heard that Kiss, one of his plays, was receiving its West Coast premiere, I hurried to reserve tickets. Kiss had its European premiere in Düsseldorf in 2014. The North American premiere was presented by Woolly Mammoth in Washington, D.C., in 2016, and besides L.A. it is being produced at Canadian Stage Company in 2017.

The opening premise of the play is that four actor friends gather in Damascus, Syria, to watch their favorite TV soap opera—musalsalaat in Arabic. It helps to know that as satellite TV access increased across the Arab world, tens of millions of people from Morocco to the Persian Gulf tuned in to what in short time became mini-dramas of an increasingly racy nature, exploring controversial subjects such as adultery, domestic abuse and terrorism.

But questions soon arise. Are we really in Damascus?—the actors don’t dress or speak like Syrians. Are they in real time or acting out a favorite over-the-top episode of the show? Where is that dinner they were supposed to enjoy together? Is anything really what it seems to be?

Kiss is a unique piece of theater,” says director Bart DeLorenzo of this 80-minute, no-intermission work. “It’s a thrilling entertainment as twisty and surprising as the best melodrama, but also a striking political play—and, above all, a fascinating examination of the very nature of political theater.”

War and upheaval have deeply informed the award-winning work of Calderón, now New York-based. Born in 1971 at the height of Salvador Allende’s left-wing Popular Unity alliance, he came of age under the brutal dictatorial regime of Augusto Pinochet (Calderón’s uncle was killed by Pinochet’s security police). In the years of tentative democracy that followed Pinochet, Calderón and his theatrical circle struggled to create an honest theatre that would say what they wanted to say—and figure out what that was. By now Calderón has authored some dozen plays of a searching, provocative character. He has become one of Latin America’s most-produced playwrights.

Like any citizen of the world contemplating the awful situation in Syria, audience members for Kiss will be driven to ask what is real and what is fiction? What sources can be believed? Whose side is worth supporting? Is this play less about the characters—and not at all about the actors—and more about the audience and what presuppositions we carry when we enter the theatre?

Can we even trust the words we hear? An open profession of love may be more rarely heard in America than in an Arabic-language soap opera. Do the words mean the same thing? Kiss? Yes? Cough? A broken heart? Do they mean the same in wartime as in peacetime? Or do urgency and danger and death change their valence? Who wrote that soap opera episode anyway?

It’s all very mysterious, but not in an Orientalist sort of way; Calderón is too worldly for that. The mystery—personal, political and theatrical—is how much of our lives is mediated in ways we don’t even recognize any more: The TV we watch, the papers we read, the gossip we hear, the veracity we expect from our friends, lovers and colleagues. What can we trust? What do we understand, and how do we know it?

“I want to create political problems for audiences—a little bit of crisis,” the playwright has said. “I don’t think about entertainment when I write my plays. I think about how to create argument. That should be entertainment enough.”

The four friends are played by Kristin Couture, Max Lloyd-Jones, Natali Anna Ortiz and Kevin Matthew Reyes. Minor roles are played by Cynthia Yelle and Nagham Wehbe. They do a remarkable job as a team, ricocheting off each other like billiard balls in constant motion.

The creative team for Kiss includes scenic designer Nina Caussa, lighting designer Katelan Braymer and costume designer Raquel Barreto.

Dear Reader, if I am sounding more elusive than usual, it’s because critics were admonished in a “Spoiler Alert” that “In order to maintain the element of surprise for future audiences, we ask that you not give away details of the plot in your review. Thank you for understanding.”

And thank you for understanding.

If you’re a meat and potatoes theatergoer who requires your tidy exposition, development and satisfying dénouement, maybe Kiss is not for you. For those who appreciate an intellectual challenge in the dark interior of theatre where almost anything can happen, and if you’re interested in the mind and work of Guillermo Calderón, this is an important milestone along the road to a bold, interrogative new theatre aesthetic.

Performances of Kiss take place through June 18 on Fri. and Sat. at 8 pm and Sun. at 2 pm. Additional weeknight performances are scheduled on Weds., May 17, Thurs., May 25, and Weds., June 7, all at 8 pm. “Tix for $10” performances are scheduled for Fri., May 26 and Weds., June 7. Post-show discussions take place on Weds., May 17 and Weds., June 7. The third Friday of every month (May 19 and June 16) is wine night at the Odyssey: Enjoy complimentary wine and snacks and mingle with the cast after the show.

The Odyssey Theatre is located at 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles 90025. For reservations and information, call (310) 477-2055 or go to OdysseyTheatre.com.


CONTRIBUTOR

Eric A. Gordon
Eric A. Gordon

Eric A. Gordon is the author of a biography of radical American composer Marc Blitzstein, co-author of composer Earl Robinson’s autobiography, and the translator (from Portuguese) of a memoir by Brazilian author Hadasa Cytrynowicz. He holds a doctorate in history from Tulane University. He chaired the Southern California chapter of the National Writers Union, Local 1981 UAW (AFL-CIO) for two terms and is director emeritus of The Workmen's Circle/Arbeter Ring Southern California District. In 2015 he produced “City of the Future,” a CD of Soviet Yiddish songs by Samuel Polonski.

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