What images come to mind? This city and year may feel distant to an American audience, especially one quietly observing the opening moments of Haven’s production of Kiss at The Den. Whatever your mind conjured about Damascus, you’ll soon forget this context or question it. Written by Guillermo Calderón, the play follows two couples attempting to hang out with their weekend soaps. But their lives quickly descend into a soap opera of their own. And we watch, amused by the apparent drama and familiar music underscoring moments of cliché passion and momentary rejection (sound design and original music Jeffrey Levin).
The set (William Boles) could be our living room, with a cozy couch flush to the wall, oriented towards a TV playing what could be a version of The Bachelorette. Golden picture frames hang above the couch and a hookah lives beside it. Hadeel (Arti Ishak) takes a drag, eyes glued to the TV. The kitchen is sparse, but clean. A round table is home to two chairs. An intentional space. But Hadeel’s peace is soon disrupted with the entrance of Youssif (Salar Ardebili). Energy shifts to longing and desire as we are dropped into a fluffy Middle Eastern affair among friends and lovers. Or so it seems.
With three quick acts, Calderón disrupts what is real and what is reality. Further description of the plot would veer into spoiler territory, which the press packet diligently urges against. For the twists and turns are so inherent to the heart, a questioning of who can tell whose stories, that time spent on the playwright’s background can contextualize this world just the same.
Gulliermo Calderón’s “Kiss” is his first play written in English detailing a narrative that is outside of his cultural experience as a Chilean. An interview with American Theatre illuminates much about the perspective of an artist growing up amid political turmoil. From the onset, he was interested in learning about and bringing awareness to the crises of Syria. But paired with these intentions was an awareness of the challenges and dubious ethics of an outsider’s perspective. How many times has a text done more harm than good when written anthropologically? That is, a text based in observation and research rather than the lived experience.
Under the sharp eye of director Monty Cole (who also plays a love interest), this play toggles between excavating intention and impact. It expertly reckons with the responsibility of producing art that lives and breathes outside of its place of genesis. Dramaturgy, the art of incorporating history and context of story within the theatre, is a necessary star here. Artists must do their research, for art is a serious endeavor—especially when in pursuit of empathy for the human condition.
Playwrights are intentional with their worlds. Each word, stage direction, space, and place. Damascus here matters and is a choice. So what happens when this location and all the life it carries is disregarded in the presentation of a play in favor of entertainment or creators’ egos? What happens when the context of a kiss is more harrowing than ever imagined? Kiss is a call for accountability and tact in art-making.
What sets this play aside in its critique of authenticity gone wrong is the Kiss team’s whole-bodied commitment to diversity in casting, rigorous public programming, and robust dramaturgy display. Though the premise of Calderón’s piece rests on ignorance and apathy, the production team of Kiss demonstrates they are striving for a thorough understanding of the work they have chosen.
Salar Ardebili, Monty Cole, Gloria Imseih Petrelli, Arti Ishak, Sami Ismat and Cassidy Slaughter-Mason Understudies: Nina Jayashankar. Ruchir Khazanchi, Joan Nahid, Kate Nawrocki and Ian Michael Smith
Monty Cole (director), Gulliermo Calderón (playwright), William Boles (scenic design), Emily Boyd (props design), Kotryna Hilko (costume design), Claire Chrzan (lighting design), Zach Gipson (technical director), Adam Goldstein (dialect coach), Gaby Labotka (intimacy direction), Katelyn Le-Thompson (associate lighting design), Jeffrey Levin (sound design), Liviu Pasare (projections designer), Marika Mashburn (casting director), R&D Choreography (Violence Design), Angela Salinas (production manager), May Truehaft-Ali (dramaturg), Corbin Paulino (production stage manager), Mitch Ward (stage manager), and Austin D. Oie (photographer).