Arpita Ghosal is a Toronto-based arts writer. She founded Sesaya in 2004.
If you have an aversion to unease, Guillermo Calderón’s Kiss is not the play for you.
Currently receiving its Canadian premiere in a co-production by Theatre Smash, ARC and Canadian Stage, Kiss was a commission by German theatre company Düsseldorfer Schauspielhaus in 2014. It is the first play written in English by the Chilean-born US-based Calderón, who is known for his sparse scripts and sharp use of dramatic irony to provoke, puzzle and perplex. The idea that he might be being critical lands almost like an afterthought, when the house lights go back on – at least this was my experience seeing Kiss.
To go back a few days, I enjoyed a lengthy chat with Dalal Badr, who plays Bana. We discussed a great many things: the play, the creation process, the rehearsal space, the use and nature of language, customs, culture – and whether it’s possible to understand something completely. At this point I haven’t seen the play, and some instinct tells me to store our conversation until I do, to better appreciate the context of her responses. Good decision: when I revisit them two hours after seeing the play, they take on a new meaning.
Which in turn takes me back to the play. At the theatre, I do the usual: I start reading the playbill, which for the first time ever creates panic . . . because it convinces me that I’m in the wrong place. The description in the publicity, plus my conversation with Badr, made me expect something different than what the playbill seems to be introducing. I start to squirm, distracted because of this piece that I’m to write. Seeing my discomfort, my husband whips out his BlackBerry, pulls up the description on the Canadian Stage website, and shows it to me, asking, “is this it?” I think so,…but I just can’t reconcile it with the playbill. Seeing my face, he says simply, “just go with it.”
It’s when I do, when I give over, that things start to fall into place. Badr’s comments – and especially her omissions – come into sharp focus. Even in her candid ruminations, she has been circumspect in her word choice, so as not to ruin the experience of Kiss. She describes the play as “enigmatic,” in the sense that there’s not a lot on the page in terms of words: “The stage directions are spare, and so it’s been a really interesting creation process,” she offers, explaining that the challenge of the piece is also its appeal. “It’s a great arc. It’s in five parts, and they stack on top of each other,” she explains, “but each part is extremely dense within itself.”
I’ve now seen them all – and they are tightly stacked, intensely dense. Watching Kiss, I sense more than see the interconnectedness of each part, and Calderón’s clever use of abstraction within the layers, where he has concealed information. This makes it possible to get at the intersection and interplay of ideas. The audience can access aspects of a theme without definitive understanding of each part, and makes provisional advances toward understanding the themes and characters. Is it possible to understand them completely? Probably not, given that things in Kiss are not as they first seem, or even as they then seem . . . and that in any case, everyone’s experience and perspective is unique. Which, perhaps, is the point.
The play begins with four actors (Badr, Greg Gale, Carlos González-Vío and Naomi Wright) staging a melodramatic play they happened to discover on the internet. Having only the script at their disposal and with no knowledge of how it came to be written or why, they interpret it through their own experiences and the scripted words as they understand them. It plays with a certain stylized, manic energy through to its conclusion. And like every audience before, the audience silently and unself-consciously evaluates the quality of the acting, the intent behind the direction and the story itself. Until the second of those five parts begins, forcing a new set of questions and an urgent examination and revision of those initial naive responses. And the disorientation and reassessment continue – with ever greater urgency – with each of the remaining 3 parts. The cast’s mantra becomes “keep going” – and as an audience, we do. Are they confused? Are we confused? What are we missing, I wonder? (And looking around at the audience and hearing their murmurings, I see that I’m not alone with my questions.)
Back at home after the show, I recall a moment in our conversation when we discussed how Yury Urnov, the director of the Washington, DC production of Kiss described it as a play about confusion. When I mention the comment, Badr admits that the word confusion “heats her up,” likely because of its slipperiness. At the same time, it prompts from her a series of questions aimed at clarifying his meaning: “‘Confusion’ as a director in the sense of staging confusion? Creating confusion or the illusion of confusion within something in which it is set? [That would be] interesting as a director, maybe. To an outside eye, that would be an interesting thing to orchestrate for an audience — something that is repeatable for an actor eight times a week.”
We can’t get to exactly what he might have meant, which prompts another wondering. Kiss, which is about Western actors staging a play set and authored in Syria, is written by a Chilean playwright in English! So our conversation naturally turns to the complexity of other cultures. “I don’t know that we can ever understand someone else’s experience, maybe at all,” Badr muses. “I don’t know if we can ever understand it fully. I think that communication is everything…and sharing meals, and teaching each other songs, and telling each other stories and constantly building bridges.”
She sees Kiss as a play about this “gap of understanding, and how deep that chasm is, how at times it feels like you’re building a bridge, and at other times, it feels like you’re in freefall.” Paradoxically, both extremes are “great”: full of “positive forward momentum, even though one feels like you’re falling down, and one feels like you’re moving across.” And both are very much occurring in Kiss: “In this play, it’s (about) how do you activate an attempt at understanding, an attempt at going further, going deeper into something new that you don’t know — because if you don’t know it, then how do you know how to get to know it?” She observes that perhaps the only way to achieve such an activation is to “ask questions. And to fall and get up, and fall and get up. Or wait to be told. Don’t get there all on your own because you’re only working with assumptions, and that’s very dangerous.”
After the play, I put this comment together with my experience of the actors’ performance. I realize that ultimately, the feeling prompted by the intense 80 minutes of Kiss is similar to that generated by my 40-minute conversation with Badr: an intense curiosity and appreciation, peppered with chuckles and punctuated by uncertain questions. Lots of them, including her wondering what I will “make of all this,” which I continue to ponder. A quote from the play resonates: “The play is not about the characters themselves, but about the audience who gathers around to see it.” Kiss challenges the audience as they grapple with the conflict and ambiguity inherent in the play, and grope for understanding of the characters, their situation(s), the play, and the author (and trust me, the night I saw Kiss, we were groping!). Specifically, the play challenges the audience to look to themselves. To engage one another in dialogue. To share reactions, to wrestle with meaning, and to accept – with gratitude – that energetic communal communication, entered into with curiosity and empathy, must be viewed as a welcome and acceptable proxy for fixed understanding.
If you have an aversion to unease, Guillermo Calderón’s Kiss is not the play for you. But you should come see it anyway . . . then talk about what you’ve seen with the spectators around you. More than likely, it’ll activate a reflective and shared attempt at a deeper understanding.
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What: Kiss by Guillermo Calderón; featuring Dalal Badr, Liza Balkan, Greg Gale, Carlos González-Vío, Naomi Wright, Bahareh Yaraghi; co-produced by Theatre Smash and ARC in partnership with Canadian Stage; directed by Ashlie Corcoran
Who: Audiences 14 years and up
When: On stage until April 16
Where: Berkeley Street Upstairs Theatre, 26 Berkeley St, Toronto, ON M5A 2W3
Information and Tickets: CanadianStage.com
© 2017 Arpita Ghosal, Sesaya