Review: ‘Kiss’ at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company

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I go to see live theatre for a lot of reasons. I go to laugh and to be moved, to feel excitement or empathy, to be entertained in a way that just isn’t possible with podcasts or Netflix. I also go because there is a community of artists and audience members that feels as passionately about theatre as I do, and it’s wonderful to be with those people live, in person, together, in an increasingly distant and digital age.

Lelia TahaBurt, Shannon Dorsey, Gabriela Fernandez-Coffey, Tim Getman, and Ahmad Sherif Helmy. Photo by Teresa Castracane Photography.

Lelia TahaBurt, Shannon Dorsey, Gabriela Fernandez-Coffey, Tim Getman, and Ahmad Sherif Helmy. Photo by Teresa Castracane Photography.

To be clear, the new production (and American premiere) of Kiss at Woolly Mammoth does indeed do all of those things. I laughed uproariously, and I was moved to tears. I felt inspired and cathartic, and I was certainly entertained; the 90 minute show went by in a flash. All of this makes it a great play. But what makes Director Yuri Urnov’s production so singularly spectacular, and a mandatory must-see for any serious aficionado of quality theatre, is its ability to make such a strong statement on a particular issue – in this case, the conflict in Syria – that it virtually shifts the paradigm on which the whole discussion is founded. This is art that has an impact. That is theatre that is worth producing and worth seeing. Do not, I repeat do not, miss this show.

It’s difficult to give a full synopsis of Kiss without spoiling what has to be one of the most shocking about-faces in contemporary theatre. Playwright Guillermo Calderon, the current darling of Chilean theatre who is quickly becoming the enfant terrible of global playwriting, uses language that is direct and staccato yet deeply poetic. In the hands of this terrific cast, the words pop off the stage like fireworks… in whatever context they are spoken.

Kiss is actually a play about a play. Specifically, four American actors are performing a play (also called Kiss) by a Syrian playwright that they found on the Internet. First we see the play as it is performed by the actors, and then we meet the actors themselves. Ultimately, what unfolds is an exploration of how artists struggle to communicate the experience of a far off land – and how that struggle can fundamentally change a person.

Shannon Dorsey. Photo by Teresa Castracane.

Shannon Dorsey. Photo by Teresa Castracane.

Shannon Dorsey, whose recent credits include An Octaroon at Woolly and All the Way at Arena Stage, delivers a powerhouse performance as Hadeel, a woman in trouble who loves two men. One of those men is her boyfriend, Ahmed, played by Woolly veteran Tim Getman. The other is Ahmed’s (gasp!) best friend, Youssif, played by Joe Mallon, who happens to be dating Hadeel’s best friend, Bana, played by Gabriela Fernandez-Coffey.

If this all sounds a little melodramatic, it’s because the play (or rather, the play-within-the-play) is inspired by the soap operas that are uber-popular in Syria. The classic love triangle set up leads to some crack up funny moments in the first part of the play, and all four actors totally nail the exaggerated acting style.

After their performance, the cast speaks to the person they know as the playwright, played by Lelia TahaBurt. As she and her interpreter, played by Ahmad Kamal, explain the intricacies of the play as written, the cast realizes that a lot has been lost in translation. Like, A LOT. Any artist who has tried their hand at interpreting a foreign play will recognize the sinking “dumb American” feeling that the four actors experience. But (and this is a huge but, the but that defines the play) they do not give up. On the contrary, they throw themselves ever deeper into Kiss and open themselves up to new ways of telling the story. In the process, they learn much about the ongoing Syrian civil war – and the experience of trying to tell that story without ever actually having lived it.

Shannon Dorsey (Hadeel) gives an absolutely virtuoso performance. From beginning to end, she crackles with energy, compelling the viewer not to turn away, even when the going gets tough.

Director Yuri Urnov is also instrumental in making Kiss as impressive as it is. He makes bold choices that pay off, and in his hands the complex conceit of the play becomes totally natural. His athletic style of directing (e.g. opening up an entire wall of the space during a particular moment) not only brings Calderon’s script to life – it gives it a new life.

Kiss is a special design challenge because of its sharp dichotomy in terms of tone and style. Lighting Designer Max Doolittle must go from evoking a sentimental melodrama to the modern Syrian hellscape, which he does quite effortlessly. The same goes for Sound Designer James Bigsbee Garver, who deftly executes the play’s ample use of different microphone techniques.

L to R: Gabriela Fernandez-Coffey, Shannon Dorsey, Tim Getman, and Joe Mallon.  Photo by Teresa Castracane.

L to R: Gabriela Fernandez-Coffey, Shannon Dorsey, Tim Getman, and Joe Mallon. Photo by Teresa Castracane.

Projections Designer Alexandra Kelly Colburn creates a spot on imitation of a spotty Skype conversation, but also provides some critical, highly evocative images that elegantly establish the atmosphere of the Syrian civil war.

Performed not in the Woolly theatre proper but rather in the downstairs rehearsal room, Set and Costume Designer Misha Kachman has an extra challenge in bringing this quick-changing play to life. He does so in stride, however, with a mobile and multi purpose set, and a slate of casual, modern Arab costumes.

My personal viewpoint on the events in Syria was drastically altered by this play. By no means will that be every audience member’s experience, but I do think it speaks to the power of the script and the skill of the actors in telling the story. And despite the heart rending facts of the Syrian civil war – facts which are provided in the front-of-house and the program in an excellent display by Dramaturg Kirsten Bowen – Kiss is ultimately an optimistic play. This is because it has faith in artists – wherever they may hail from – to burrow through their own limited cultural experience into a much deeper shared human psyche. Such stories require brave storytellers, and Kiss provides a blueprint on how such a thing is possible – if only we are courageous enough to seize the challenge.

Running Time: 90 minutes, with no intermission.

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Kiss plays through November 6, 2016, at Woolly Mammoth Theatre  Company – 641 D Street NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 393-3939, or purchase them online.

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