by Michele Markarian
‘Kiss – Written by Guillermo Calderon. Directed by David Dower. Presented by ArtsEmerson, at the Emerson Paramount Center, Jackie Liebergott Black Box, 559 Washington St, Boston, through November 19.
“Kiss” begins as a televised performance of what appears to be a melodrama from Syria, loaded with betrayal of both friendship and love, staged by young Americans. The character of Hadeel (Ashley Dixon) is being propositioned by the character of Yusef (Derek Brian Demkowicz), despite the fact that both of them are friends with their respective others, the characters Ahmed (Brandon Beach) and Bana (DeeDee Elbieh). “Hate is fire – the beginning of a second love,” Yusef tells Hadeel, who tries to resist him. “Right now you think you hate me, but that’s just the beginning”. Hurt feelings and jealousy come into play with the arrival of Ahmed and later, Bana, especially after Bana announces triumphantly that she has been kissed. She does chastise Yusef for his odd revolt from the relationship with “Before you break up, you have to become distant and weird”, which he has not done.
The young actors manage to track down who they believe to be the playwright of this piece, and they arrange for a Skype interview from their studio to Syria. A wigged and sun-glassed “Bousa” (Deniz Khateri), through the help of her translator (Emma Meyerson) reveals that the piece itself is not straightforward drama – it is code for what is actually happening in Syria. The cast, somewhat embarrassed and ashamed, decides to perform the play again, keeping in mind Bousa’s notes, even adding an act that they compose themselves.
This is a strange and powerful piece, less about the characters and more about the estrangement between worlds that it presents. While I fume about delays on the Red Line or the parking lot at Whole Foods, citizens of Syria are suffering from exposure to chemical weapons, barely existing in refugee camps, and worrying, if pregnant, about care for their unborn children. Life doesn’t stop under harsh conditions. People still fall in love, get pregnant, have sex, fall out of love. I heard a therapist on the radio once, talking about trying to help Cambodian refugees, many of whom lost relatives on the perilous journey over. The therapist was surprised that the refugees wanted most to talk about their relationship issues – “I love this man, but my cousin stole him from me”, kind of thing. Emotions are what move us. And while the characters in the troupe do their best to bring Bousa’s vision to light, they really don’t seem to connect with it. Their reading of the script almost seems obtuse; for example, they don’t even notice that there are gunshots in the stage directions. “Bousa” herself is unemotional – her situation is the new reality that she’s had to adjust to. Emotional resonance comes in the final moment of “Kiss”, with a haunting song beautifully and sorrowfully performed in Syrian by Khateri.
The young cast are all students, with the exception of Khateri, at Emerson College. The performers do a great job with the text, which is sometimes in the style of Pinter/Mamet. Kristine Holmes’s set realistically conveys a living room in the Middle East (I even saw two bowls of typical Middle Eastern refreshments sitting on the coffee table when I was leaving the theater). “First World Problems” is a phrase we tend to toss around, ruefully, when we find ourselves or one of our friends griping about, well, parking at Whole Foods. Or the Red Line. If you want a brief glimpse as to what that phrase really means, get yourself over to the Emerson Paramount and find out. For more info, go to: https://artsemerson.org