Guillermo Calderón’s Kiss bears more than a passing resemblance to Sarah Kane’s Blasted (which Shotgun Players also produced last fall). Calderón, like Kane, pursues a path of narrative disorder after a recognizable point of departure. Neither playwright is interested in linear storytelling or familiar tropes that might comfort the bourgeois members of a ticket-buying audience. The two writers, responding to different countries besieged by war and moral disintegration, depart from each other only by the means they use to achieve their very similar ends.
Kiss begins under ordinary circumstances. Hadeel (Roneet Aliza Rahamim) is having a few friends over for a night of TV watching. She’s tidying up her apartment when there’s a knock at her door. It’s Youssif (Phil Wong) wearing a funny expression on his face. He’s in a relationship with Hadeel’s best friend Bana (Elissa Beth Stebbins). During Rahamim and Wong’s first scene together, the audience, sensing that something was amiss, didn’t know whether to take their stilted line readings at face value or to laugh at the campy melodrama. Seventy-five percent of the audience opted for stone cold silence or sighed with lingering question marks. The rest of the crowd emitted laughter that was punctuated by multiple exclamation points. Their hardy-har-hars registered as “We’re in on the joke.”
Youssif arrives at the gathering early to declare his love for Hadeel, whose boyfriend Ahmed (Wiley Naman Strasser) is due any minute. Their dialogue is worthy of a soap opera, saturated with purple prose and sudden emotional reversals. When Bana and Ahmed do show up, Kiss ramps up the pace between the two couples and the play shifts its gears into romantic farce — but only temporarily. Two characters die at the end of, what turns out to be, a play within a play. And suddenly we’re back in an unfunny melodrama.
When the actors take a curtain call, Elissa Beth Stebbins addresses the audience directly, as if she’s breaking the fourth wall. But she’s not. In this incarnation, she becomes Laura, the director of the play we’ve just seen. As the soap opera actress Bana, Stebbins’ performance, along with her blue eyeshadow and multiple scarves and bangles, recalled Elizabeth Taylor’s tremulous glamor in The Sandpiper (1965). She infused Bana with the atmosphere of a fallen diva. Despite the extreme emotions that are exacted from actors in any standard melodrama, the audience can reliably suss out why a character is behaving — however outrageously — the way they are behaving. When Stebbins and the rest of the cast stepped out of their original roles, the script, unfortunately, strips them of any individuality. The atmosphere that’s been summoned vanishes.
Psychological confusion settles inside everyone on stage for the rest of Kiss. Laura et al. contact the Syrian playwright (Rasha Mohamed) who wrote the play they performed. They have an extensive video chat with her and her interpreter (Jessica Lea Risco). The woman they believe to be the playwright answers their questions. Collectively, they add up to, “Have we interpreted your text correctly?” The answer is a resounding no. That’s why the line readings were tonally awkward. The play, she explains, is meant to mimic Syrian soap operas only in a superficial way. The actors missed the implicit context hidden in plain sight.
Bombs are falling daily on Syrian citizens. There are meant to be guns firing in the background and bullet holes in the walls. One character who’s suffering from a cough has been poisoned by a chemical weapons attack. The ensemble slowly (way too slowly) comes to the realization that Kiss isn’t a melodrama or a farce. They’ve completely missed the mark. Is the audience then meant to think of the cast is naive or just ignorant buffoons? Or are they simply stand-ins for disinterested, decadent Americans who are more interested in reality TV finales than atrocities taking place on distant continents?
After their interview with the playwright ends, Kiss sparks back to life for a few minutes. With their newfound knowledge, they decide to perform the play again. And just as they’re getting the tone right (they’re not so dumb after all), Calderón decides to dispense with the effort it would take to interpret Kiss as a tragedy. He, again like Kane, embraces chaos instead. Where Blasted built up a dreadful sense of momentum from one atrocity of war to another, Kiss depends on a final explosion to send the same message, one that’s unearned, overwrought and without any Syrian characters to care for when it’s time for the real curtain call.
Kiss, through Sept. 23, at Shotgun Players, 1901 Ashby Ave., Berkeley, $7-$42; 510-841-6500 or shotgunplayers.org