You must remember this. A kiss is not always just a kiss, or at least not in Guillermo Calderón’s compelling, confounding vision of life and love and death in today’s Syria, the appropriately—or metaphorically—titled Kiss, now being given a never-less-than-daring Odyssey Theatre Ensemble West Coast Premiere.

You’d never guess from scenic designer Nina Caussa’s stylish living room set or actors Kristin Couture and Max Lloyd-Jones’s blue-eyed blondness that we’re in the middle of war-torn Damascus, but the world their two characters inhabit along with their dark-haired, dark-eyed costars Natali Anna and Kevin Matthew Reyes is more musalsalaat (Syrian soap opera) than CNN as the foursome overact a romantic quadrangle that could just as easily be found on a Mexican telenovela or on The Young And The Restless weekdays at noon.

If anything, the love-hate woes of Hadeel (Couture), Youssif (Reyes), Ahmed (Lloyd-Jones), and Bana (Anna) prompt nearly as many laughs as an episode of The Carol Burnett Show’s As The Stomach Turns.

Indeed, I can imagine many an attendee wondering if Kiss isn’t either bad acting or bad theater or both.

They’d be wrong, since without giving Kiss’s many unexpected twists away, one thing becomes quite clear about twenty minutes in.

There is method in Chilean playwright Calderón’s seeming madness, and much power in what soon develops into a surreal, meta-theatrical commentary on love and war and loss and hope in a country gone mad, on our inability as Americans to understand a world so far removed from our own, and on the power of theater to bridge the gap between diametrically different lives.

Under Bart DeLorenzo’s electric direction, Kiss’s four talented, charismatic young stars ace their tough assignments, going from the deliberately heightened style of the play’s opening scene to later, more naturalistic territory in roles as physically demanding as they are emotionally draining, and bilingual Lebanese-American actors Nagham Wehbe and Cynthia Yelle’s contributions cannot be underestimated.

Katelan Braymer lights Caussa’s set and Raquel Barretto’s just-right contemporary costumes with dramatic, ever-morphing flair. Sound and projection designs are uncredited, but both are integral as Kiss mutates from soap to reality to surreality and beyond.

Kiss is produced by Beth Hogan. Joe Behm is production stage manager and Cristina “Crispy” Carrillo-Dono is stage manager.

Guillermo Calderón’s Kiss may have you scratching your head more than once, and indeed several audience members got up and walked out of the performance reviewed.

Those who make the wise decision to stay put till the end may not have all their questions answered, but, if only for the amount of thought being provoked, it is well worth sticking around for the haunting coda that awaits.

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Odyssey Theatre Ensemble, 2055 South Sepulveda Boulevard, Los Angeles.

–Steven Stanley
May 25, 2017
Photos: Enci Box

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