The cast of KISS by Guillermo Calderón, directed by Evan Yionoulis. Photo by Joan Marcus, 2018.

Open to Interpretation

From the first moments of Yale Repertory Theatre’s production of Kiss, there are clues that boundaries will be broken. Even before the action begins, the program informs us that the play’s setting is “Damascus 2014 and/or Here and Now.” A tower viewed through the window of a nondescript, placeless apartment could be a minaret, though New Haven audiences may be reminded of East Rock’s Soldiers & Sailors Monument.

Hadeel (Sohina Sidhu) is waiting for three friends to arrive at her apartment—her boyfriend and another couple. The foursome frequently gets together to watch their favorite musalsal (loosely translated as “soap opera”). Youssif (James Cusati-Moyer), Hadeel’s friend’s boyfriend, arrives first. When they briefly act out a scene from the musalsal, they seem to be cuing us to wonder: How much of what they’re doing is acting and how much is real? Hadeel gestures toward the photograph of her boyfriend, Ahmed, and she seems at first to be pointing to the television on which it stands, raising a moment of doubt as to whether he’s an actual boyfriend or just a TV crush.

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Ahmed (Ian Lassiter) appears at the door a few minutes later, dispelling those thoughts. But by then the audience may be just unsettled enough to realize something is amiss. Written by Chilean playwright Guillermo Calderón and directed by Yale Rep’s Evan Yionoulis, Kiss is billed as “a politically charged and emotionally resonant exploration of what gets lost in translation.” It’s a bold undertaking, in no small part because Calderón is exploring Syria and the war there from afar.

In an interview published in the program, Calderón calls this an “honest effort” which, nevertheless, he knew he was “going to get… wrong.” “The idea,” he says, “is to talk about the war through cultural misunderstanding.” Calderón’s brilliance is to make the audience culpable in this misunderstanding. As layers of the setting were revealed and peeled away—both figuratively and literally—the opening night audience was led through a gamut of emotional responses: laughter, horror, sadness, confusion, surprise, all highlighting our own mistakes in judgment.

The dangers inherent in cross-cultural translation are represented in part through language itself. Abubakr Ali plays the role of Interpreter to Rasha Zamamiri’s Woman; they speak both English and Arabic. The bilingualism of the other characters is less conventional. They speak English as well as some approximation of English-in-translation, which could be either metaphorical language or a failed attempt to communicate from one language to another. “I want to smell your wallet,” Hadeel asserts as a profession of love. And later, to explain her deep desire to the others: “He’s my dinner, my swine, my dog.”

Hadeel’s friend Bana (Hend Ayoub), an actress, refers to “a Syrian film director living in Turkey… knew a Jordanian writer living in Cairo…” At the same time, we know we’re watching a play about Syria written by a Chilean and produced by an American theatre. Such reminders of the play’s global context bring to the fore the hot-button issue of cultural appropriation and the many opportunities for someone to “get it wrong.” Calderón sees Kiss as an attempt to stage that issue. It’s a welcome discussion of the tension between “silencing” and “exploiting.”

Nevertheless, by the time we reached what could be called the final scene of Kiss, I felt like a flash drive whose memory was full. There was simply too much information to process and too many possibilities to consider. This may point to a flaw in the production, which stages the metatheater more extravagantly than the script calls for and thereby distracts from the final minutes of dialogue. It may be a flaw in the delivery of that dialogue, or in the script itself. Or that experience of “overload” may be precisely where I was meant to be taken, given its thematic resonance. Like so much in Kiss, it’s a matter for debate.

Kiss is a wild journey that leaves not only the characters but the audience disheveled at the end. It’s a testament to the value of this play’s questions, then, that the moment it was over, knowing what I had learned, I wished I could watch it all over again.

Yale Repertory Theatre – 1120 Chapel St, New Haven (map)
Performances through May 19
(203) 432-1234…

Written by Kathy Leonard-Czepiel. Photographed by Joan Marcus.

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