The Play’s the Thing: Syria, Soaps, Spoilers on the Road to Damascus

My readers (hiya Ma!) know I’m usually very careful regarding plot spoilers, either completely avoiding or clearly labeling them, so as not to ruin the element of surprise for theatergoers. This is actually the first time I’ve reviewed a play when critics and ticket buyers are not given the program until after the play and reviewers are admonished in a press kit disclaimer printed in boldface to “not give away details of the plot.” So, to paraphrase Teddy Roosevelt, your reviewer will make it a point to “talk softly, but carry a big Bic” in this critique.


Kiss’ proverbial curtain lifts on a simple white and black living room set inside of a Damascus apartment in 2015. Hadeel (Caucasian Kristin Couture, who graduated from the Art of Acting Studio, Stella Adler and portrayed Monaco’s actress/princess in the one-woman show Grace Kelly: The Fairy Tale) is watching a Syrian soap opera on a white Sony TV. She is home alone (I hope this isn’t a plot spoiler but the stage ends up more wrecked than Macaulay Culkin’s abode and the Odyssey Theatre’s cleaner upper deserves an Ovation Award), waiting for her boyfriend and another couple to watch the serial drama on her telly.


Enter keffiyeh-clad Youssif (Kevin Matthew Reyes, an actor of Filipino ancestry who has been in Steppenwolf Theatre Company’s Lord of the Flies and Lanford Wilson’s Balm in Gilead - although this one-acter is more like “Bomb in Damascus”) (uh-oh, was that a plot spoiler?). Youssif has deliberately arrived early, ahead of his girlfriend Bana (part-Argentine actress Natali Anna, who was born and raised in Spain) and Hadeel’s boyfriend, Ahmed (blonde-haired, bearded, London-born Canadian actor Max Lloyd-Jones, who portrays Blue Eyes in the upcoming War for the Planet of the Apes).


To make a long (and complex) story short (and spoiler-free), romantic complications ensue that telenovela and Woody Allen movie fans will be quite familiar with. Indeed, Kiss has characteristics very similar to the genre and character conventions of soap operas. So much so that as Ahmed and Bana join Hadeel and Youssif onstage it may seem to viewers that they are watching the acting out of one of those televised melodramatic chapter plays that are as popular in the Arab world (where they are called “musalsalaat”) as they are in the Americas. Perhaps this part of Kiss could even be titled “As the Whirled Turn” or “The Young and the Reckless.”


However, there is more going on here than meets the eye, as Kiss has more twists and turns than the road to Hana, Maui. Kiss was written by Guillermo Calderón, whom American Theatre magazine said last October is “Widely regarded… as Chile’s preeminent playwright/ director,” and, I’d add, screenwriter. I’m unfamiliar with Calderón’s other plays, such as Neva, which earned the Critics Circle’s Best Play award, and have been performed at L.A.’s REDCAT and Manhattan’s Public Theater, but I did see the 2016 film Neruda, about the Chilean Communist senator and poet, co-starring Gael Garcia Bernal. Like that stellar movie, which was Golden Globe-nommed for Best Foreign Film, Kiss is a multifaceted work wherein the content is imaginatively rendered via an inventive form that upends conventional storytelling techniques.


This will make it difficult for many viewers to comprehend Kiss, which explores what happens when subject matter is reinterpreted by outsiders from another culture, with their own sets of values, (mis)understandings and so on. How can Americans thousands of miles away from Syria be able to fully grasp what is going on in that war-torn nation, no matter how well-intentioned they may be? Especially by those who have never been to Syria or haven’t closely followed and studied the intricate events taking place there that seem like a jigsaw puzzle?


Further adding to Calderón’s conundrums, Kiss’ careening plot peregrinations come to include two actresses of Arab ancestry (although they are of Lebanese, not Syrian, backgrounds), Beirut-born Cynthia Yelle as Ameera (or is she? inquiring minds want to know) and her interpreter (Nagham Wehbe, the Arab Film Festival’s L.A. coordinator). Suffice it to say that they add a whole new level of complexity to this multifarious murky play (or is it really a play?) that makes Kiss even more multi-dimensional. Their appearances are rendered via high tech wizardry that includes FaceTime and projection of their images on a wall that, shall we say, shatters the “fourth wall” of traditional theater, as New Media expands stagecraft’s parameters.


Born in Santiago two years before Generalissimo Pinochet, Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger overthrew the democratically-elected government of socialist Salvador Allende in an extraordinarily vicious, barbaric, bloody coup, Calderón’s work is marked by Chile’s suffering under the U.S.-backed junta which, along with tens of thousands of other Chileans, claimed the life of Calderón’s uncle. The playwright certainly brings that politicized sensibility to this drama set during Syria’s civil war, with its references to horrifying atrocities, from poison gas to bombardments of civilians. However, perhaps because I’m a writer and the closest I’ve ever gotten to Damascus is Tangiers, thousands of miles away in Morocco, of all the points made in this drama, my personal take away is how an author’s intent can be completely misunderstood and misinterpreted (how appropriate that one of the six characters is, literally, an interpreter). Meaning can be elusive, especially when translated from one culture and language into another.


Kiss raises numerous questions, of course, about the ongoing debacle unfolding in Damascus, as well as fidelity, monogamy and more. But by creating such a creative, nuanced, multi-layered work, Calderón also prompts analysis and debate about political art. How best to execute it, on the stage or on the screen? Should artists be very straightforward, with a more simple, “socialist realist” style, so that the broad masses, who are often uneducated, can easily, readily comprehend the auteur’s intent and ideas? Or should the form of a political play match its content, which is often radical? As Calderón told

American Theatre magazine:


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


So Calderón, like many political artistes before him - such as playwright Bertolt Brecht and the Soviet and French/Swiss film directors Sergei Eisenstein and Jean-Luc Godard - wants to make the spectator think, as well as feel. A lofty ambition - but are noggin scratching works like Kiss that are difficult to make heads and tails of the most effective way to politically engage auds? And to convey the author’s intent?


I don’t pretend to have the answer to this but it is one of the many questions posed by this challenging drama which adventurous viewers at the Odyssey Theatre, one of L.A.’s finest stage complexes, will have to ponder for themselves. Veteran helmer Bart DeLorenzo deftly directs the ensemble in this one-act piece performed sans intermission. In addition to listening to the dialogue, astute audiences should keep their ears open for sound effects that also tell the Syrian conflict’s offstage story.


Lloyd-Jones vocalizes some of those sound FX into the mic and Max goes to da max as the cuckolded Ahmed, exclaiming at one point: “I’ll never trust anyone again!” In the first major foray on L.A.’s boards by the co-star of the next installment in the Planet of the Apes film franchise, one could say the handsome young Canadian appears in a piece of “guerilla theater.” Casting directors, agents, et al, should pay attention to this big and little screen and now stage thespian, who acts in a drama as dramatic and hard to comprehend as Syria’s traumatic war.


Kiss plays Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 p.m., and Sundays at 2:00 p.m., plus on Wednesdays May 17 and June 7 and Thursday, May 25 at 8:00 p.m. through June 18 at the Odyssey Theatre, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles, CA. For more info: (323)477-2055, ext. 2;