Monday, September 3, 2018


Guillermo Calderón

Rasha Mohamed, Roneet Aliza Rahamin, Elissa Beth Stebbins, Wiley Naman Strasser & Phil Wong
How many of us gloss over the almost daily headlines that have been on the inner pages of our newspapers or deep in the online news feeds for the past five years about the civil war in Syria?  How many of us hardly notice any more a devastating war that has claimed an estimated 465,000 victims and displaced half of the country’s pre-war population?  For anyone who attends the current Shotgun Players staging (in association with Golden Thread Productions) of Guillermo Calderón’s Kiss, the realities of that faraway war become starkly, shockingly clear in this play about a play – one also called Kiss, where a kiss is not a kiss at all and the play is not the play as it first appears. 

Roneet Aliza Rahamin, Phil Wong, Wiley Naman Strasser & Elissa Beth Stebbins
For the first half-hour, we as audience roar with laughter as we watch a melodramatic play performed by four extremely talented actors -- a Syrian play that they have discovered on the Internet and one they believe is modeled after the uber-popular soap operas of Syria called “mosalsalats.”  In the play they perform, two couples are gathering themselves to watch such a soap opera in Damascus in 2014 (one year into all-out civil war), and we watch as a heretofore-unacknowledged love triangle comes to life with consequences full of fire and fury among friends and lovers. 

Much like in Latino telenovelas, each character gets a chance to gush emotions, gnash teeth, gesture wildly, and grab every opportunity to outdo the others in hilariously acting purposely overdone.  The scripted lines they get to emote are not ones Shakespeare would have penned but are certainly classic for this super-popular genre, lines like:
- “You told me when I was naked that I look just like your mother.”
- “You are my sister ... You are the only one that can use my toothbrush.”
- “You are so sexy ... I just want to suck your wallet.”

Wiley Naman Strasser, Roneet Aliza Rahamin & Phil Wong
Roneet Aliza Rahamin, Elissa Beth Stebbins, Wiley Naman Strasser, and Phil Wong are all superbly silly and serious as they take on the soap opera’s roles of Hadeel, Bana, Ahmed, and Youssif, respectively.  Each has moments indeed to outshine the others in upping the ante for explosive blubbering of love and hate, innocence and guilt, allegiance and betrayal.  And along the way, a kiss becomes one more of the short play’s many spilled secrets that sets off even more accusations and tears.

At the overly dramatic (but of course) end of their play, lights come up; and we are told as an audience that up until recently the cast did not know who the playwright was of this worldwide web jewel they had discovered.  However, it seems that she has been found -- having escaped from war-torn Damascus to find refuge in Jordon -- and is to appear today for post-play questions and answers. 

Upon a draped screen appears an unnamed woman (played by Rasha Mohamed) disguised for her own protection in blonde wig and dark glasses and her interpreter (Jessica Lea Risco).  As the actors eagerly explore more about the melodrama that they believe they have faithfully enacted, they begin to discover that they have totally misinterpreted not one or two, but an entire list of aspects of what the play is actually about.  Culturally, they have committed a number of faux pas, mostly because they have as little understanding of the civil war within Syria as most of us in the audience.

What happens next as the increasingly shocked, embarrassed, and disturbed actors one-by-one come to grips of what they have done is what makes Guillermo Calderón’s play such a powerhouse -- particularly when directed with such immediacy, boldness, and sense of urgency as does Evren Odcikin.  Not much else can be said in order not to spoil the lightning-paced, sweat-producing events that follow.  What can be said is that the playwright has taken a subject difficult and devastating and found a way to make a powerfully positive statement about what happens when artists do all they can to get it right – even when they have gotten it so wrong.

That Guillermo Calderón has focused on the performed art and on the artists who make that art is so appropriate for a conflict where artists and performers of all types were instrumental in the early days of the Arab Spring in celebrating and documenting what were believed to be new-found freedoms.  Many of those same artists have since been banished, imprisoned, or suffered much worse in a country like Syria that was once one of the leading centers of art and performance in the Middle East.  Mr. Calderón celebrates the drive of artists everywhere to search, find, and communicate the truth of the world around them.  He also goes one step further in Kiss; he helps us to realize the all important role and risk of being an audience member is such a war-torn society.

Mikiko Uesugi has created a set that on the surface appears to be just the kind one might expect to find on a soap-opera set of a typical living room in Anytown, Anywhere – just the kind that these actors who initially have no concept of Syria under seize might have created.  But just as the actors discover they have overlooked important aspects of the play, the set itself has some changes to undergo to become more like the original (and only) time Kiss (the play within our play) was performed in Damascus. 

The lighting of Cassie Barnes and the sound of Sara Huddleston play important roles not only in the initial run-though of the play, but especially in what the four actors decide to do to right their wrongs once they have interacted with the disguised woman on screen.  The projection of the woman and her interpreter is excellent lycreated to appear and sound like a bad Skype connection (thanks to Video Designer Kevin Landesman as well as Ms. Huddleston’s sound design).  Miyuki Beirlein rounds out this outstanding creative team with costumes that speak volumes in defining the personalities of both plays called Kiss.

After the actors of the initial Kiss learn of some of their mistakes and missed-fired assumptions, the tumult of actions and decisions they make and the resulting turns-of-events are not always totally clear as to what is happening and why.  Upon leaving the theatre, more than one person (including myself) seemed to be leaving scratching their heads with a look of combined awe and “huh?”  However, I am betting others like me found that the follow-up conversations I have had with my companions have been rich and revealing to us all, with our learning a lot of what happened by just discussing and replaying the electrifying ninety minutes.  And for each of us, we now have new insights and appreciations of a conflict that we only once in a while have given much attention these past five year.  And for that, we three thank Guillermo Calderón, Evern Okcikin, this cast and crew as well as Shotgun Players and Golden Thread Productions.

Rating: 4 E

Kiss continues through September 23, 2018 at Shotgun Players (in association with Golden Thread Productions), 1901 Ashby Avenue, Berkeley.  Tickets are available at  or by calling 510-841-6500.

Photos by Ben Kratz Studio

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