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Theatre Reviews Kiss is wild and watchable, but falls behind on the Syrian conflict

Dalal Badr and Naomi Wright star in Kiss at Canadian Stage.

James Heaslip

3 out of 4 stars

Title
Kiss
Written by
Guillermo Calderon
Directed by
Ashlie Corcoran
Actors
Dalal Badr, Greg Gale, Carlos Gonzalez-Vío, Naomi Wright
Venue
Canadian Stage
City
Toronto

Kiss is a play within a play – but with an unusual twist.

Instead of using metatheatre for farcical purposes, Chilean playwright Guillermo Calderon uses it for political ones – to engage with the Syrian civil war and refugee crisis, and ask whether a theatre performance in another country can really tackle the 21st century's deadliest conflict in any meaningful way.

For all the originality in Calderon's writing and skillfulness on display in director Ashlie Corcoran's production at Canadian Stage, however, I couldn't shake the feeling that Kiss was the wrong play in the wrong place at the wrong time.

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If you open up your program upon sitting down in the Berkeley Street Theatre, you'll find that you are, indeed, at a play called Kiss, co-produced by Canadian Stage with Theatre Smash and ARC. But you'll see a Syrian playwright named Ameera Al Diri listed as the playwright and Dalal Badr (who is, in fact, one of the actors in the play) credited as the director. Badr will later tell us that she found the script on the Internet and decided to produce it in response to the ongoing violence in Syria.

First, however, we watch what purports to be Al Diri's play – a melodrama set in Damascus, a fairly cliché story about romantic entanglements.

Youssif (Greg Gale) and Hadeel (Naomi Wright) are secretly in love with each other, but have not yet told their partners, Bana (Dalal Badr) and Ahmed (Carlos Gonzalez-Vio). When all four friends gather to watch the soap opera that Bana stars in one night, everything comes out after Ahmed proposes to Hadeel.

This Kiss is genuinely entertaining thanks to the over-the-top, yet committed performances by the cast – especially Gonzalez-Vio, who is absolutely hilarious as a man oblivious to the fact his girlfriend is in love with his best friend.

Once it is over, however, the actors take a bow and Badr tells us she has a treat for us at tonight's talkback: After months of searching, the cast has finally tracked down Kiss's playwright and she's about to join us live via Skype. In this section of the play, we see the actors playing themselves – and Badr is the standout, speaking so naturally as the director/actor that many in the audience on opening night were fooled and thought that everything that was happening was real.

After their Skype session, the actors realize how much they missed in the subtext of Kiss – and I suppose we're all supposed to think about our own gaps in understanding about what's going on in Syria.

But Calderon doesn't want to just scold his theatre makers and audience – and so the cast, with their new knowledge, now attempts to perform the play Kiss again. This last section is weird, wild and very watchable.

Corcoran, artistic director of Theatre Smash, ably ushers the cast through several different performance styles over the course of the play – and Jung-Hye Kim's ironic living-room set proves deliciously destructible.

Ultimately, however, I couldn't help but feel that what Calderon critiques in his play is also true of this Toronto production – something's lost in its displacement in space, but also time.

Kiss would have made a stronger statement in 2015, when the conflict in Syria did indeed feel far away and many Canadians, artists or otherwise, were trying to figure out what they could do. In 2017, however, the distinction between "us" and "them" has been blurred as over 40,000 Syrian refugees have been resettled in Canada at this point. Some of these new Canadians are theatre artists themselves – and the idea of a local theatre company trying to engage with the issue solely through online means no longer seems plausible.

The MT Space, a theatre company in Kitchener-Waterloo, has actually sponsored a Syrian refugee, a playwright named Ahmad Mire'e – and, in February, premiered the first play he wrote on Canadian soil, about his first New Year's Eve in this country.

What an incredible political and artistic accomplishment – one that makes the presentation of a U.S.-based playwright's work imagining the complications faced by a theatre company putting on a play by a Syrian refugee feel a little less pertinent than it might otherwise.

The irony is that Canadian Stage originally planned to produce Calderon's play in the fall of 2015, but swapped it out for a touring presentation of Samuel Beckett shorts instead. That seems like a short-sighted decision now, to say the least.

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Kiss (canadianstage.com) continues to April 16.

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