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THEATER REVIEW Kiss
by Jonathon Abarbanel
2019-07-30

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Playwright: Guillermo Calderon

At: Haven at The Den, 1331 N. Milwaukee Ave. Tickets: HavenChi.org; $35. Runs through: Aug. 18

Kiss wants you to think rather than feel. That doesn't make it inauthentic, but it distances the audience from empathizing with the characters, in part because they are two dimensional characters without complete story arcs. Kiss has a gimmick, a device, which reviewers are asked not to reveal. I'll say only that it involves a play within a play and the use, in some scenes, of exaggerated soap opera banalities. Kiss, therefore, is an intentionally theatrical work which is enjoyable but also artificial.

It's set in Damascus, Syria in 2014 and in present day Chicago. Several actors play Syrian characters in sections of the play, but play themselves in another section. The Syrians—Hadeel (Arti Ishak), Ahmed (Monty Cole), Youssif (Salar Ardebill) and Bana (Cassidy Slaughter-Mason)—are two young couples and best friends who meet weekly to watch their favorite Syrian TV soap opera together, a brief respite from the civil war surrounding them.

My takeaway is that playwright Guillermo Calderon wants audiences to understand how difficult and tricky it is to translate a work from one culture to another; not merely translate from one language to another—although that is implied—but to understand and translate context. In a play (or film), a social situation or word may seem comic or harmless to some but might have a completely different and crucial value for the work's intended audience. Since the dawn of literature, authors in repressive societies often have written in code, thereby allowing knowing followers to understand while others are clueless.

So it is with Kiss, except Calderon isn't Syrian. He's an outsider to 21st-century Syrian politics and cultural wars (unless he's Syrian through his mother; I haven't a clue). Now living in the United States but from Chile, Calderon would have a stronger claim to authentic experience by writing about Chile's cultural wars during the Pinochet dictatorship.

After the play proper, a Haven Theatre staff member explains this production is intended to highlight the plight of Syrians today—both refugees in camps and those managing to survive at home—and the disruptions of every type of normalcy, although this isn't what the play has shown us. The point is made only at the end with a stand-alone Arabic song, translated into English.

I didn't dislike what I saw and heard, although the funny part of Kiss didn't come across as well as it should. Director Monty Cole (who also plays Ahmed) should consider that audiences need to be give permission to laugh, and said permission shouldn't be too subtle. There's a good set by William Boles of Hadeel's apartment (nice linoleum pattern floor and great ladder back chairs) and some effective Skype projection tech wizardry by Liviu Pasare.


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