KISS

by Guillermo Calderon.
Directed by Ashlie Corcoran.
A Theatre Smash & Arc Co-Production in Partnership with Canadian Stage.
At the Berkeley Street Upstairs Theatre.
March 28-April 16, 2017

(L-R rear: Greg Gale (Youssif), Dalal Badr (Bana), and Carlos Gonzalez-Vio (Ahmed); Naomi Wright in front (Hadeel)  (photo: James Heaslip)

Guillermo Calderon’s play-within-a-play has been upended by Ashlie Corcoran’s unconvincing production that starts off competently, only to degenerate into a hysterical, unconvincing melodrama. Calderon’s 80-minute piece (played through without intermission) is political allegory with fine passion and moral weight. It interrogates not only the fictional characters it deploys within the play-within-a-play (purportedly a Syrian play in Arabic under the name of Boosa found on the Internet), written by a woman named Ameera Al Diri, but it also interrogates the very nature, methods, and impact of political theatre itself, as well as universal ethical themes.

This “found” play unfolds like a soap opera, in which Hadeel (Naomi Wright) has to deal with marriage proposals from two men: her boyfriend Ahmed (Carlos Gonzalez-Vio) and her best friend’s boyfriend Youssif (Greg Gale). The four meet at Hadeel’s apartment in Damascus, and the soap opera quotient is high, indeed, as Hadeel orders lusty Youssif to leave and never return because he importunes her too passionately to accept his proposal even though he is supposedly in love with Bana (Dalal Badr), Hadeel’s best friend. Youssif throws himself on his knees, claiming that Hadeel can love two men at the same time, though she insists that Ahmed (whom she has known since childhood) is the perfect one for her. This part of Calderon’s play (and it is the shortest part) is most entertaining, and does receive the right sort of life-scale acting in general from the cast, with Carlos Gonzalez-Vio’s jittery but masculine Ahmed, Dalal Badr’s fractious and devastated Bana, Naomi Wright’s conflicted and contradictory Hadeel, and Greg Gale’s anarchically charged Youssif.

After the cast takes its bows, the whole tone and style changes, without the production’s director quite knowing how to handle the tropes or the altered grain. There is a talk-back led by the director of the play-within-the-play (Bana), and a Skype interview with the female Syrian playwright, translated by her interpreter (Liza Balkan), during which the soap opera cast realizes that they have misread many things in the script and not understood some of the most significant and dire implications of the action. So, there are new attempts at getting the play right. Ironically, this is where Corcoran’s production goes woefully awry (despite rehearsing well-known theatrical conventions, such as video projections and sounds of static), descending into some of the worst clichés of melodramatic acting to such an extent that my urge to laugh out loud was muffled only by my disgust at the falsity of everything. It was as if the players were caught in a radically new Pirandello play without benefit of a proper cast or a true director. Seldom as meta-theatre seemed so literally absurd. And this is a pity because Calderon (who is probably Chile’s best playwright) deserves much better.

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