Shotgun's 'Kiss' is laced with Acid

Artistic rigor can teach us about the world. The more unrelenting the practice, the greater its grip on us, and the more we learn. Or maybe better put, precision keeps us from cheating, forces us to see the world in ways that our foreign, uncomfortable, and revealing. When you can’t escape a vision, you learn the language: great artists make sure that’s our only choice.

Guillermo Calderón’s Kiss isn’t a great play, but it’s a sharp one. In the Shotgun Players’ excellent production in association with Golden Thread Theater you’re going to feel the sting of its anger, despite its shaky final two scenes.

Now if you’re alert and you are, you won’t be fooled by actress Elissa Beth Stebbin’s welcome and subsequent invitation to stay for a discussion after the play. We know we’re being set up, especially if you’ve been to a Shotgun production in the last couple of years. Christopher Chen’s Caught and James Ijames’ White engage in similar, meta-theatrical hijinks.

As the lights go down on the deliberately chintzy living room set, a projection announces that it is “Damascus 2014” and so we know that whatever follows is not going to be neutral. Yet, what we see is not an expression of civil war, of ongoing atrocities, but a kind of fantasy of where drama takes place, and especially cheap, soap opera dramas.

And that’s what we get, a parody, or a parody of a parody of a Syrian As the World Turns. Youssif (an amazing and controlled performance by Phil Wong) has come to Hadeel’s home to watch their favorite television soap opera with her boyfriend, Ahmed, and his actress girlfriend, Bana, both late to the party. That Youssif declares his love to Hadeel and somehow convinces her to marry him before the other two arrive is the first of many absurdities.

As a form of political critique parody feels limited, too easy. Do corrupt regimes ever fall after a withering take down of games shows, reality TV, and soap operas—that’s an exercise in futility and the kind of high-minded superiority that gave us the damning phrase, President Donald J. Trump. But in Kiss, Calderon turns what seems like easy parody into an almost ascetic practice, a form as pure as a Bach cantata.

In the stunning, opening scene, the soap opera aesthetics never break and because of that the play builds and develops a rich language capable of expressing strange anxieties and philosophical positions of real complexity. After Youssif declares his love for Hadeel, she rejects him with this piece of logic:

Ahmed is my boyfriend because I love him. And he loves me back. And his love for me makes me love him even more, and that bigger love for him makes him love me back even more. So whenever he tells me he loves me I say I love you too. Even more. Bigger. See? It’s magic. Is that so hard to understand?

Well, no, she’s right, it’s not that hard to understand. But what she says is also a lucid take on how love sometimes works, both its rules and the way it builds and shapes our sense of self.

Over and over these hackneyed characters and situations generate a remarkable level of thought and reflection. You realize how sharp fools can be, how alert and insightful they are with lines such as, “It is totally human to love two men at the same time.” And this beauty from the hapless Ahmed: “We fail … we can even be … disgusting. I know I am sometimes.” You can laugh at them and the overwrought emotions that produce these bits, but none of us are smarter than these philosophers of the everyday.

As ridiculous as it all is you would never say that it could never happen; instead, Calderón provides us with a world so logical and consistent that its soap opera aesthetics start to seep into our own sense of reality. It’s a deft refutation of how we normally constitute artistic and political seriousness, and allows the playwright to speak about the world in beautiful and striking ways.

So here are the problems. When the play-within-a-play ends and the fictional actors take their bows, we get the meta-theatrical audience talk back that Stebbin promises at the beginning of the evening and before the “play” begins. That it doesn’t quite go the way she or the rest of the cast hope is expected and part of the fun, but it’s also where Kiss, the actual play, starts to strain for credibility.

Calderón uses the realism of the moment—these are actual actors on stage engaged in a reenactment of a talk back—without accounting for all the ways in which the situation would never play out like this. And that blunts his political concerns, gives us an out where we should feel trapped. The aesthetic rigor that he brings to the first scene is jettisoned for the conceptual tricks of the second, and while we’re counting up problems the third and final scene as well.

Without giving away the plot, I’ll just say that Kiss becomes more and more unbelievable as it goes along, that the aesthetic rigor evident in its opening gives way to a conceptual rather than actual realism. Unlike so much of Bay Area political theater, starting with the aesthetically lazy San Francisco Mime Troupe, Calderón shows how competence and aesthetic vision precede political commitments. You can’t have the latter without the former.

What the play doesn’t do is carry through with those commitments in the most radical manner possible, evading its own impressive terms and vision. So, look, you should go and see the play. There are wonderful moments. The cast and Everen Odcikin’s direction are loose and incisive, but we should demand more from Calderón, because any artist who can make it half way to brilliance should finish off the killing.

Please write in if you see Kiss and disagree.

‘Kiss’ runs through September 30 at the Ashby Stage in Berkeley. For tickets and information click here.