by John Stoltenberg
Kiss is a work to be reckoned with. Its power and importance, its comedic wit and caustic intelligence, make it a major theatrical event of the season. For anyone who prefers shows to have substance and art to be a portal to what matters, this new play now at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company will be a mind blower.
But it would be wrong to reveal why.
Kiss, written by the acclaimed Chilean playwright Guillermo Calderón, is performed without intermission, but the text is constructed in three acts, or movements, each staged in a distinct style from a different point of view. I can tell you about the first, and drop a few hints about the rest. But I dare not defuse the bombshells that come later.
The play seems to begin trivially, on a living room set. Curiously it looks like it’s in some foreign city but it’s a little off. The back wall is a carpet on which hangs a cheesy portrait of a couple; a huge brown leatherette sofa overflows with sparkly throw pillows; there’s an a odd plastic potted palm; a fake doorway stands stage left. Hadeel (Shannon Dorsey), wearing a headscarf, nervously welcomes Youssif (Joe Mallon), who’s dressed casually, and a droll tête-à-tête starts up. Hadeel has a boyfriend, Ahmed, who hasn’t arrived yet. Youssif has a girlfriend, Bana, who hasn’t arrived yet either. They are all four fast friends and have planned a double date to watch a television soap opera. Yet now Youssif declares his passion for Hadeel and there ensues a hilariously absurd seduction that continues as Ahmed (Tim Getman) and Bana (Gabriela Fernandez-Coffey) arrive.
We are in a quite off-kilter melodrama here, a silly/sly send-up of telenovelas. Kiss is the first play written by Calderón in English, and the script’s comedic idiom is ridiculously rich, the humor dry with a tart twist. Youssif, for instance, trying to persuade Hadeel to love him even though she loves Youssif’s best friend Ahmed, mansplains:
You can love two men at the same time. You can. The heart is a big muscle and yours is bigger than normal. I know. And it happens to a lot of women.
For her part, Hadeel waffles between requiting and rejecting Youssif’s advances (and Shannon Dorsey plays Hadeel’s hot/cool vacillations to the hilarious hilt):
Hadeel: Every time you and Bana come here to watch TV… when you leave I just want to scream TAKE ME, Youssif. TAKE ME WITH YOU. I just want to kiss your leather jacket. I want to put you to sleep. Forgive me, Bana. Youssif. I want to see you naked. I want to see you eat and when you are done I want to lick your plate until it’s completely clean.
Youssif: Please marry me.
Hadeel: Don’t touch me.
Youssif: Marry me.
Hadeel: Leave me alone.
Ahmed arrives, also dressed casually, then Bana shows up, in dramatic movie-star garb (she is in fact a soap opera actor). Thereafter the story bubbles along like a tickling hot tub, the four never quite sorting their crazy love-crossed complications, the comedy buoyed by tight writing and terrific acting. Gradually the suspicion dawns that none of this is what it seems. As we are to learn in the next of the three acts, it decidedly is not.
The second act is a communication via Skype between the actors we’ve seen performing the soap opera—the script of which they found on the Internet—and the Woman (Lelia TahaBurt) they have identified as its author. She is in Lebanon and is at times translated by an Interpreter (Ahmad Kamal). There will be talk of a kiss. And talk of a cough. And what we learn will turn everything we have seen into an experience entirely unexpected and possibly unprecedented.
Set and Costume Designer Misha Kachman and Lighting Designer Max Doolittle do far more than meets the eye in the first act. Just watch and see. Sound Designer James Bigsbee Garver and Projections Designer Alexandra Kelly Colburn pull out all the stops. And Yury Urnov, who directs this text with masterful skill and a politically astute imagination, contributes a coda that will leave you shell shocked.
Kiss at Woolly Mammoth is a must-see milestone in the history of entertainment with a conscience. And it’s about as brain changing as theater gets.