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Review: KISS: Emerson Undergrads Excel in Calderón's Syrian Soap Opera

Review: KISS: Emerson Undergrads Excel in Calderón's Syrian Soap Opera


Author, Guillermo Calderón; Director, David Dower; Scenic Designer, Kris Holmes; Costume Designer, Tyler Kinney; Lighting Designer, Scott Pinkney; Video Designer, Ari Herzig; Sound Designer, Arshan Gailus; Associate Costume Designer, Jez Insalaco; Dramaturg, Travis Ariel; Stage Manager, Sammy Landau; Assistant Director, Lindsey Hopper

CAST: Brandon Beach, Derek Demkowicz, Ashley Dixon, Samantha Drust, Deedee Elbieh, Lauren Hewer, Deniz Khateri, Emma Myers; Swings: Benjamin Bailey, Sara Sargent

Performances through November 19 by ArtsEmerson: The World on Stage at Emerson Paramount Center, Jackie Liebergott Black Box, 559 Washington Street, Boston, MA; Box Office 617-824-8400 or

ArtsEmerson: The World on Stage presents Chilean-born playwright Guillermo Calderón's Kiss, a play-within-a-play that delivers a message about cultural ignorance, the danger of living within a comfortable remove, and the potential of artists to change the world. Directed by Co-Artistic Director David Dower and featuring a talented ensemble of protagonists played by Emerson College undergrads, Kiss is an unusual and discomfiting piece of theater that is part Syrian soap opera, part improv, and totally worth your time.

There is no formal announcement made to indicate that the first act of the play is a soap opera, but the two large television monitors overhead flanking the set are a good clue. Once the action starts, the melodramatic storyline and the heightened acting styles cement the notion that the play we are watching is actually a tv drama. Set in Damascus in 2014, the plot includes a love triangle, the betrayal of a best friend, and a sudden death from an unknown cause. It begins innocently enough when Hadeel (Ashley Dixon) is preparing to host her actor friends to view their favorite soap opera. Yusef (Derek Demkowicz) arrives early, purportedly to rehearse a scene with her, but proclaims his love instead, setting off a series of revelations, injured feelings, and unexpected outcomes when Achmed (Brandon Beach) and Bana (DeeDee Elbieh) join the gathering.

When that scene concludes, the actors leave the stage before returning in different guises to, more or less, deconstruct what they have just performed. This middle section of Kiss is the most enlightening, peeling back layers of assumption and unveiling the cultural ignorance of the characters. It is necessary to be opaque here, so as not to reveal the surprising shifts that occur in the structure of the play. However, know that the audiences that came before you responded in very much the same way as you probably will, and it is a combination of the playwright's skill and the authenticity of the actors that makes this interlude work.

The last third of the play is presented in an improv style and can be a little confusing, but suffice to say that the characters are striving to find the appropriate way to get their message across. Although they may not feel that they get it right, it is by the power of their continued efforts that the point is actually made for the audience. Their youth, energy, and commitment to explore every option drives home the thesis that artists have the potential to change the world. These final scenes also show the resilience and range of the ensemble, especially in light of the fact that they are students still studying their craft.

Dower's direction sets a fast, almost breathless pace, and is augmented by Scott Pinkney's quick-change lighting design and projections by video designer Ari Herzig, with stunning moments added by sound designer Arshan Gailus. Scenic designer Kris Holmes' contemporary set is ready-made for the soap opera vibe, and costume designer Tyler Kinney differentiates the characters by their clothing styles. Deniz Khateri, the only non-student in the cast, and Emma Meyerson impress with their use of Arabic dialogue, as well as their part in a cinéma vérité segment. Samantha Drust and Lauren Hewer stand in as crew members of the fictional acting company, but also alternate in other roles, as do the swings, Benjamin Bailey and Sara Sargent.

With a title like Kiss, one might expect that the play features an element of love, or an exploration of the power of love. Love is a plot point in the soap opera and the characters believe that they are performing a play that is about intense love. When they learn that "kiss" is a euphemism for something very different from their understanding, it awakens them to their own naiveté and spurs their desire to make it right. As the young people on the stage open their eyes to the truth of a world far from their own, we who are on the opposite side of the footlights are opening our eyes, as well.

Photo credit: Evgenia Eliseeva (Ashley Dixon, DeeDee Elbieh, Brandon Beach, Derek Demkowicz, Lauren Hewer)

From This Author - Nancy Grossman

From producing and starring in family holiday pageants as a child, to avid member of Broadway Across America and Show of the Month Club, Nancy has cultivated her love of the art and respect for the... (read more about this author)

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