The bottom line is that we simply aren’t given a requisite sense of the play’s embrace of tragedy.
Kiss by Guillermo Calderón. Directed by David Dower. Staged by ArtsEmerson at the Paramount Center, Jackie Liebergott Black Box, 559 Washington St., Boston, MA, through November 19.
By Robert Israel
Kiss is a one-act play-within-a-play. David Dower’s direction kicks off the script’s intricate mechanism with considerable energy – you can hear the mainspring humming as the cast of four twentysomething players (two women, two men) click the gizmo into gear and start it spinning. But vitality isn’t enough to make this play whirl right; the young cast displays potential, but there’s not enough fuel here to propel the playwright’s complicated engine of a script. Along the way, the gears get jammed — the performers are too busy chewing the scenery. By the final curtain, the production has ground to a halt.
The cast gathers on a set that doubles as a soundstage. The play-within-a-play turns out to be a production of a found-script by an exiled Syrian writer, a soap opera set in Damascus during its ongoing — now eight years in the running — civil war. Additional cast members serve as production assistants that flit about the wings like dark moths wielding video cameras, capturing images on video monitors that are posted to the left and right of the stage.
The soap opera story is droll; the cast delivers dialog one expects to hear spoken by television actors caught up in escapist romantic absurdities. Three of my favorite lines: “You are the perfect boyfriend”; “I love him as if he were a horse”; “My brain is cauliflower.” The lines are so preposterous, and performed with such brazen melodrama, that you can only snicker or chuckle as they enter and then tickle the disbelieving ear.
But that’s only the first layer of the story. We learn that the cast gets the intent of the script all wrong. That’s not what the playwright intended. This revelation comes to us via a large video screen that is brought on stage. The cast, now out of character, places a Skype call to the exiled playwright, whose televised image shows her to be speaking from somewhere in Lebanon. She wears sunglasses and a peroxide wig. Beside her is a translator. As each cast member takes turns asking questions, another layer of meaning is discovered. The previously heard preposterous lines have hidden meanings. Lines are in code, she explains to the exasperated cast, who are seated on a couch. Civilians are being gassed. Bodies are piling up. Bombs are going off everywhere. Don’t you read the newspapers?
Up until this juncture in the script, the cast members handle the mounting complications well enough – the hilarity of their initial misinterpretations following by their rude awakening is entertaining. It’s during the final stretch – when they are required to totally transform the melodrama and somehow present the true meaning of the exiled playwright’s words – that they miss the mark. Considerably.
Playwright Calderón, who usually writes his plays in Spanish, penned this script in English so it could be then be translated into German for a production overseas. It’s very much about life during wartime. The dramatist came of age in Chile during a time of revolution, and he demands that the material convey how political upheaval – human rights abuses, kidnappings, torture, and mayhem — severely upends normal human interactions. The humorous opening scene is supposed to give way to a deeply painful denouement; a confrontation with the reality that, during a time of radical conflict, love is impossible, even what seems to be a TV-ized parody of love. The fictional playwright, expounding via the Skype broadcast, expects this naïve cast to express this truth, this horrific dysfunction. And Calderón, the real life playwright, demands it too — and much more.
The bottom line is that we simply aren’t given a requisite sense of the play’s embrace of tragedy. There are moments when the staging and performances come together, but there are not enough of them to bring the evening to satisfactory completion. So, while it’s exciting to see Calderón’s work presented in Boston – we badly need work that tackles international politics with muscle and verve – this kind of serious work demands a more seasoned field of performers.
Robert Israel writes about theater, travel, and the arts, and is a member of Independent Reviewers of New England (IRNE). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.