Regional Reviews: Phoenix
Kiss begins as an exaggerated and overly dramatic soap opera set in Hadeel's Damascus apartment, complete with melodramatic sound effects and overstated expressions. Ahmed plans to propose to Hadeel but little does he know that his best friend Youssif is secretly in love with Hadeel and she with him. Once Ahmed's high-strung actress girlfriend Bana arrives, more truths are revealed while chaos and hilarity ensue.
After that 30-minute humorous first act, the play then morphs and changes as facts come out, and everything we've seen so far is turned upside down, with dramatic and heartwrenching touches that change your perspective, views, and thoughts on the characters and their perceived comical romantic entanglements. To say anything more about the plot will ruin the surprise and framework of the piece which Calderón has effectively created.
Even though the Syrian civil war and its refugee crisis aren't as on the front burner now as they were in the last few years, with thousands of Syrian refugees having already been taken in by the U.S., almost 1,000 in Arizona alone, Calderón's work is still topical and offers an interesting question about whether anyone can truly understand the traditions, language and social aspects of those in faraway foreign countries. But it also seems that Calderón is saying that much more than just subtext and simple understanding can get clearly lost in translation and without a personal knowledge we can never truly empathize with the suffering of others.
Director Ron May never fails to impress with his subtle directorial choices and ability to ensure his cast members always deliver committed performances; the group of actors he's assembled for Kiss is no exception. Character names are intentionally left out of the program to also not give away any spoilers, so I'll also refrain from using specific character name, although I don't think that doing so would give anything away. Neda Tavassoli, Evan Ohbayashi, Connor Wanless, and Samantha Hanna portray the quartet of lovers we meet in the first act and each delivers a performance that is comical and farcical but always grounded in reality. When things get a little darker, all four have no problem achieving portrayals that are believable and heartbreaking.
While Ohbayashi and Wanless are very funny, engaging and charming, Calderón's situations and dialogue provide meatier parts for the female characters and both Tavassoli and Hanna are exceptional in beautifully delivering the wide range of acting styles and emotions that are required of them. While there isn't a weak link in the cast, Hanna is simply superb. She appears after we've already met the trio of lovers, like a firecracker of emotion about to explode, and you simply can't take your eyes off of her. Both she and Tavassoli vastly exceed what is required to portray the changes their characters go through, and they deliver compassionate and upsetting, though incredibly memorable, performances. Hayla Stewart and Gina Grey appear in the second act as two women who reveal truths to the rest of the characters, and the urgency and reality they achieve in their portrayals is stunning.
Creative elements are excellent, with Aaron Sheckler's set design delivering a simply stated apartment that, along with Dallas Nichols' subtly shifting lighting, plays perfectly into the changes and range of emotions in the play. Pete Bish's sound design delivers some great comical sound gags in the first act, and shifts to deliver effects of a much more serious nature in act three, and the costumes from Maci Cae Hosler are appropriately modern and character specific.
While it isn't perfect, Kiss is a politically charged play that will definitely make you think about how you view people from different countries and backgrounds and if you can really truly every understand their struggles without at least speaking to them or seeing first-hand what they are up against. With a stellar cast, lush creative elements, and spotless direction, this Stray Cat production, like just about every other challenging work they produce, provides a perfect way to test and expose an audience to characters and a world far beyond their own.
Kiss at the Stray Cat Theatre runs through September 30th, 2017, with performances at with performances at the Tempe Center for the Arts, 700 W. Rio Salado Parkway, Tempe AZ. Tickets can be ordered by calling 480 227-1766 or at straycattheatre.org.
Written by Guillermo Calderón
Cast: (in alphabetical order)