I have always been a proponent of good political theatre, not agitprop theatre such as written by Italian playwright Dario Fo. I prefer political writing that is more balanced like the great teleplays that David E. Kelley wrote for L.A. Law, The Practice, Boston Legal, Harry’s Law and most especially Picket Fences. Writing that presents both sides of an argument and acknowledges that audiences are smart enough to make their own decisions. Chilean playwright Guillermo Calderon’s Kiss, at the Odyssey Theatre, is one hot mess of a political play about the current civil war In Syria. The first 45 minutes attempts to mine laughs as a quartet of decidedly non-Syrian actors play characters in a typical Syrian soap opera or musalsalaat. It’s a tradition for friends and family to gather to watch these serial melodramas and that is what these four friends are doing in 2015 Damascus. Youssif (Kevin Mathew Reyes) arrives at Hadeel’s (Kristin Couture) earlier than expected. He admits he’s in love/lust with Hadeel and proposes marriage. And first she is shocked and put off by his advances since she has a boyfriend and Youssif is dating Hadeel’s best friend. But she accepts. She can’t face Ahmed (Max Lloyd-Jones) when he arrives so Ahmed confesses to Youssif that he has decided to propose. When he does, Hadeel accepts. When Youssif’s girlfriend Bana (Natali Anna) arrives late and is told the all the news, she goes into a frenzy. Laugh a minute, right, especially when the action ends with Hadeel’s death from a broken heart. The mostly young audience at the opening weekend performance I attended seemed to enjoy watching the soap opera-ish shenanigans of their Millennial counterparts.
But when the mood changed, they did not seem to have the same amount of enthusiasm. The actors claim they found the script online recently and went into rehearsals without receiving permission to do the play from the Syrian playwright. But they have now traced her to a refugee camp in Lebanon and are about to Skype with her and the audience is made privy to this embarrassing scene. The playwright Ameera (Cynthia Yelle) at first speaks and understands English but she is then joined by an interpreter who translates English into Syrian and the reverse. It seems the director and the cast got the play all wrong. Hadeel didn’t die of a broken heart—she died as a result of a chemical gas attack in which she was a victim. Bana wasn’t delayed because someone stopped her for a kiss; she was stopped by the police. interrogated and probably raped at some point. With this new info, the cast decides to re-enact the play (thankfully not the full 45 minutes, just the “highlights”.) They destroy the set, strip down and all cough continuously in the new war torn environment.
I am sure there are plays that will be written and should be seen about the current Syrian civil war and the resultant atrocities. Kiss is not that play. The road to hell is paved with good intentions and that just may be the destination some audience members will feel like they’ve been taken to. I’m sure director Bart DeLorenzo and his cast had good intentions, I just feel they were wrongly placed in this 80 minute fiasco. There was a note in my press kit asking that reviewers not give away plot details but if I did that, this review would only consist of a list of names of those involved. But in all fairness, the producers should just consider this a Consumer Advocacy Alert instead of a review and the writer Ralph Nader rather than yours truly.
Odyssey Theatre, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd. in Los Angeles. Ends June 18. www.odysseythatre.com.