Can art be separated from its cultural context? Can one society understand another? And when things go bad, how much are good intentions worth?
In “Kiss,” Chilean playwright Guillermo Calderon explores the power, empathy and sometimes difficult responsibilities of live theater.
“The story centers on a group of earnest, young American actors who want to be a part of the global moment,” said William Whitaker, professor of the practice in drama, who will direct the drama Nov. 16-19 for the Performing Arts Department (PAD) in Arts & Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis.
“They stumble across a script, posted on the internet, by an unknown Syrian writer,” Whitaker continued. “In a gesture of solidarity, they decide to stage it.
“And they get it horrifyingly, humiliatingly wrong.”
‘Any way possible’
Born in 1971, Calderon has earned an international reputation for intimate, politically infused works exploring the lingering traumas of Chile’s dictatorial Pinochet regime (1973-90). For “Kiss,” the first play he has written in English, Calderon wanted to address the current, catastrophic violence of the Syrian civil war.
“But there’s one problem with this, which is that I don’t know about the culture,” he recently told American Theatre magazine. “I don’t speak the language. I’ve never been to Syria, or to the region for that matter.
“But I think that for me this is urgent, and I think that theatres should reach out and try to address this war and this tragedy in any way possible. So I decided to write a play about the war in Syria, but also about a misunderstanding about Syrian culture.”
Largely structured as a play-within-a-play, “Kiss” begins with its well-meaning Americans performing the Syrian script in the heightened emotional style of a Middle Eastern musalselat, or soap opera.
“It’s terribly, delightfully comic,” Whitaker said. Afterward, “the actors are feeling good, there’s nice energy in the room, and they’ve lined up a Skype interview with the playwright. But pretty quickly, they begin to realize just how badly they’ve misread everything. And so they huddle up and begin again.
“This is a serious play with big intentions and aggressive momentum,” Whitaker added. “Calderon chastises us for being lazy about the things that we think we know. But he’s also a champion of the artist, and hopeful that good information and respectful, intelligent storytelling can beget change.
“Getting something wrong can be humiliating, but it’s also clarifying,” Whitaker concluded. “It challenges you to go further, to push forward, to try to get it right.
“You can’t just stop at meaning well.”
Cast and crew
The cast of six features Scott Greenberg as Youssif/Daniel; Anna McConnell as Hadeel/Andrea; Austin Moulder as Ahmed/Martin; and Natalie Thurman as Bana/Laura. Sabrina Sayed plays the Syrian woman on Skype. Tyler Parker is the interpreter.
Sets and costumes are by Erica Frank and Michael Carovillano. Lighting and sound are by Ricardo Solis and Sam Jamison, with projections by Ben Lewis. Stage manager is Sarah Azizo, with assistance from Joshua Sarris. Nathan Lamp is assistant director.
“Kiss” begins at 8 p.m. Thursday, Friday and Saturday, Nov. 16, 17 and 18; and at 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, Nov. 18 and 19.
Performances take place in the A.E. Hotchner Studio Theatre, located in Mallinckrodt Center, 6465 Forsyth Blvd. Tickets are $20, or $15 for students, seniors and Washington University faculty and staff, and $10 for WashU students. Tickets are available through the Edison Theatre Box Office.
For more information, call 314-935-6543.