When you experience something so beautiful, you have to put it into words just to make sure that it is real. Though I purport no ability that will come close to doing Guillermo Calderón’s work an inkling of justice, finding word to convince you to see Kiss at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company for its sheer horrifying beauty and stunning emotional weight is now my mission; the must-see show of the season has risen to the stage with harrowing political relevance, disarming emotional provocation, and unapologetic brutality of form and subject. Directed by Yury Urnov, this gripping upheaval of raw evocative conflict is emotionally blindsiding and drops heavy into the core of the human psyche and soul.
Tackling an unexperienced first for Woolly Mammoth, Director Yury Urnov and his team of sensational creative designers explores this riveting new work as a main stage production in the rehearsal hall. The stage becomes an intimate encounter, the players all but in the audiences’ laps as the story gets underway. Set and Costume Designer Misha Kachman sets the stage for the melodramatic soap opera we’re all about to experience. The gem and jewel tones are vibrant, allowing the audience to connect with the distant setting of the Syrian backdrop. Kachman keeps the furnishings sparse, the décor simple, letting the story speak for itself with just enough visual aid to assist the audience in the suspension of their disbelief. The same is true of her costume work in outfitting the four players featured in the first half of the performance. Though there is no intermission, there is a very clear moment where the production shifts from its first half to its later and Kachman’s resourcefulness and spatial negotiations are heavily featured therein.
Lighting Designer Max Doolittle and Sound Designer James Bigsbee Garver wrap their design work tightly around each other’s elemental infusions creating perfectly synchronized moments of illumination and soundscape that often serve as mood indicators, mood enhancers, and ultimately as a tertiary level of characterization to Calderón’s script. During the melodramatic moments of the soap opera reenactment, Doolittle’s lighting is almost comical— playing with silhouette and shadow as well as interrupting crucial moments with exacting precision— while Garver’s underscored soundtrack heightens those absurd moments. Without spoiling the production, it can simply be said that in the back-end of the production their combined design efforts are pungently potent and strikingly evocative. A nod of praise needs to be addressed to Projections Designer Alexandra Kelly Colburn, however, it would be ill-suited to speak in detail to exactly why. It can be said that Colburn’s projection work is jarring, unsettling at the least, and well suited for the atmospheric feeling and overall verve of the scenes into which it is worked.
Playwright Guillermo Calderón emotionally upends the audience with the gravitational pull of his script. There are two distinctive parts to his script, constructed meticulously so that the second echoes the first with detrimental effects. Calderón exposes a cultural extermination to the masses, of which far too many people are currently under-informed or all together ignorant; the script provides profound insight into the active auto-genocidal crisis occurring in Syria. His approach to doing so is blindsiding in both its presentation and striking accuracy. The harrowing brutality that is eventually realized in the later part of the script is gut-wrenching and unabashedly attacks empathetic inclinations with raw, hard, truths.
Calderón has a way with words that twists the plot so tightly that the explosive nature mimics the crisis he is portraying. Under Director Yury Urnov, the emotional tensions of the piece are delivered at heightened extremes at all times. Urnov pushes the main four performers in the first half of the production to fully address the campy, melodramatic, and absurd nature of these soap opera characters and their relationships. This is done with grounded intention, that is not actualized into the back half of the production, but in doing so it makes the contrast between these two major script-diving beats that much more striking. Urnov essentially directs two plays under the aegis of Kiss; one play is driven by absurd and complicated emotions while the other lives and dies on the complicated emotional absurdities of circumstance, with several beats of harrowing connective tissue bridging the gap between the two.
Though Woman (Lelia TahaBurt) and Interpreter (Ahmad Kamal) are not encountered until the latter half of the performance, with Kamal’s character only ever appearing in projection, they are an integral working part of the script as much as the four main players. TahaBurt, without too extensive of an elaboration on her role in the show, is mindfully present. Her voice is haunting when she takes to singing at the show’s conclusion. While there are a great many things that can be said for her portrayal of the unidentified character, none further can be spoken without fear of ruining the masterfully surprising beauty that Calderón has crafted into the play.
Hadeel (Shannon Dorsey) and Youssif (Joe Mallon), one melodramatic soap opera couple, and then Ahmed (Tim Getman) and Bana (Gabriela Fernandez-Coffey) their respective partners. Though the relationship statuses, much like in a real soap opera, are irreverently irrelevant as they chance so frequently one can hardly keep up with who’s telling the truth or who’s in love with who. Approaching the front end of the production very differently from the way in which they approach the back end, this quartet of performers does delivers a stellar production from start to finish.
Dorsey is responsible for a great deal of the awkwardly sniped comic one-liners that happen in the first half of the play. Counterbalancing these comic quips are the facial expressions of utter confusion and sheer exasperation featured on Tim Getman’s character. But the crown of melodramatic theatricalized presentation comes from Fernandez-Coffey and her inexplicable moodiness upon her untimely arrival. Each nestling into the overly presentative nature of soap opera acting, to the point of sheer ridiculousness, the audience bears witness in live-time to those wildly encapsulating facial expressions, physical gestures, and awkward pauses that build the tension in a television soap opera.
With total tonal shift by the back end of the performance, Dorsey delivers a shockingly dynamic portrayal of the Hadeel character, with Mallon, Getman, and Fernandez-Coffey following suit and mellowing into something much more brutalized and thoroughly harrowing. It is difficult to speak in any detail at all about the specificity of the performance for fear of spoiling its brilliance, but it can be said that this quartet of performers is fully emotionally invested in the gravity and severity of the situation once the ball drops.
There is something unnamable in the beauty and utter tragedy that Calderón has presented with Kiss. A show that must be experienced, that must be seen, Kiss is revolutionary and life-changing.
Running Time: Approximately 90 minutes no intermission
Kiss plays through November 6, 2016 at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company— 641 D Street NW in the Penn Quarter District of Washington DC. For tickets call the box office at (202) 393-3939 or purchase them online.
To read the interview with cast members Gabriela Fernandez-Coffey and Tim Getman, click here.