There’s an unusual dilemma that both audiences and reviewers are faced with at the conclusion of Stray Cat Theatre’s new season opener for 2017-18, Kiss by Guillermo Calderón. What can you say about a play where almost anything mentioned becomes a plot-spoiler? And if that’s the case, which it is, how do you explore its successes and failures as a play, or its achievements as a regional production without giving things away?
The answer, of course, is you don’t. You can’t. You can talk of the setup and its themes, and you can break off into discussions regarding whether we truly have the capacity to understand or see the culture of another without having personally experienced it. But to reveal what happens in each of the three very different acts, and to address how the second changes everything you thought you saw in the first is to do everyone who has yet to attend director Ron May’s uncomfortable thought-provoker a genuine disservice.
With a running time of approximately 80 minutes without intermission, there’s a moment of adjustment required for Kiss once the four initial characters involved enter Aaron Sheckler’s tidy though sterile living-room set design. For some, that moment may be lengthy. For others, there may never be a full adjustment, particularly if the thought that what you’re watching isn’t necessarily a tongue-in-cheek introduction but the style of the whole 80 minutes.
Here’s what can be said, and it should help make sense of that first act. In Syria, as with a large section of countries of the Middle East and across North Africa, one of the most popular and celebrated forms of television entertainment is the Mosalsalat, a name given to a series of Arabic television soap-operas, presented in a style less than that of an American daytime soap, such as The Guiding Light or As The World Turns, but more in the overly dramatic, limited-run serial drama of a telenovela, or telenova, as originally produced in Latin America. And if you still can’t quite picture the form, think of SNL’s parody, The Californians.
When those four characters, Bana (Samantha Hanna), Youssif (Evan Ohbayashi), Hadeel (Neda Tavassoli), and Ahmed (Connor Wanless) roam around the stage, professing their love, their jealousies, and their desires for each other, all presented in a comical, overly melodramatic and intentionally hammy form, they’re in a Mosalsalat, underlined by Peter Bish’s well-timed stabs of music and sound effects.
When there’s nothing more than a knock at the door, a character will turn to the audience with a look of shock, backed by a stab of music over the speakers used in old time thirties and forties American radio dramas, when the name of the killer was finally revealed. If a character confesses his love and proposes, the sound of strings rise; when he’s rejected, those strings bottom out. Those audio effects are not only essential, they’re like an omnipresent fifth character, supporting the action and facial expressions of actors in performance.
The first off-stage sound we hear is that of a toilet flushing, which, for whatever reason, seems automatically funny, especially when it’s proceeded by what sounds like an air-freshener in use, followed by a running joke of characters entering the living room and remarking on the smell. What this has to do with anything, or where it fits into the plot, won’t make sense, but you’ll laugh, all the same. And you’ll get it later.
It’s not easy for an actor to appear intentionally awful and to keep it up for a lengthy period, but what may sound like a back-handed compliment is purposely meant; it is awful, and they do it well.
But then everything alters in a way you won’t expect, and it’s not only a game-changer, you’ll shift uncomfortably in your seat, at a complete loss, wondering where things might be heading once actors Hayla Stewart and Gina Grey are suddenly introduced. It’s not simply a case of having the rug pulled from under you, it’s as if that rug was covering a massive black hole, and once pulled, down you go, lost in your own madly careening thoughts of what is really going on as you discover why the play within the play was set in a living room, and what the real definition of the play’s title actually means.
That adage that you can never really know a person, even those closest to you, unless you step out of your own shoes and try to see things from their perspective, is not only true, it’s essential in understanding what message Kiss is trying to tell. As with the tag line you’ll see online accompanying Stray Cat’s promotion of Guillermo Calderón’s play, the Mosalsalat in the opening act is truly lost in translation, but to accuse those actors and it’s translator of ignorantly misinterpreting the culture of another is way too easy an accusation. The answer as to whether we can truly understand the inner workings and design of another culture, as if with some study we can be part of that culture ourselves, is, no. Not unless you’re fully ingrained, having lived as a native for years, and even then your education may not be complete.
As an immigrant from across the pond who grew up on American films, theatre, and music, and was educated on American literature, it wasn’t until actually immigrating and becoming immersed in a day-to-day stateside culture that anything resembling a true understanding of the American mind-set and its cultural habits came to be. And even then, as someone who spoke the same language, it took at least a further ten years to fully comprehend why an American thinks and believes what he or she does. And even now, some thirty-five years later, that education is hardly complete. To assume that any of us can fully understand a foreign speaking culture with a religious or habitual mind-set so different in so many ways from our own can’t be done. If author Calderon’s Kiss is telling us anything, that’s the message. But it’s essential we go all out and try, or mistakes, like the play’s opening act, will be always made, followed by disasters of unimaginable proportions, and an ignorance that can eventually do nothing but harm.
Playwright Calderón has said that he doesn’t think about entertainment when he writes; he thinks how to create an argument. In this, with Kiss, he has clearly succeeded, as, indeed, has Ron May’s production, one that, though discomfiting, once again sticks firmly to SCT’s desire to always present a provocative theatrical experience. The opening act feels too long, and the final act may bemuse somewhat, but the theme essential to the play’s understanding, which hits with the power of a deadly lightning bolt in the middle act, comes across both loud and clear, and is necessary. If western minds are ever to learn how to walk a mile in the shoes of someone else and begin to understand what it is to alter a perspective and comprehend cultural differences, then here’s where you start, with Kiss at Stray Cat Theatre.
Kiss performs at Tempe Center for the Arts, Tempe until September 30
Pictures courtesy of John Groseclose