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In Syria-inspired ‘Kiss,’ misinterpreting the language of war

American Theatre

“The core of the play is the idea of misunderstanding — how well-meaning people can try to convey the horror of war but then fail at it, miserably,” says playwright Guillermo Calderón.

By Jeremy D. Goodwin Globe Correspondent 

Guillermo Calderón’s play “Kiss” brings several cultures into conversation.

“I wrote it in English so it could be translated into German,” the Chilean playwright says, about a play dealing with the ongoing civil war in Syria. Fittingly, the internationally minded artist speaks to the Globe on the phone from an airport in Mexico City, shortly before taking a flight to Los Angeles.

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“Kiss” is about an eager theater troupe that finds a play by a Syrian writer online and stages it in an effort to raise awareness of the conflict there and celebrate Syrian culture. But in the process the actors discover that they got the play wrong, entirely missing the cultural subtext a Syrian audience would intuitively understand.

ArtsEmerson presents a homegrown production of the play, with co-artistic director David Dower directing an ensemble of Emerson College undergrads, at the Paramount Center’s Jackie Liebergott Black Box through Nov. 19.

There’s a lot of meta-context to unpack with “Kiss,” which is about a theater group staging a Syrian play called — you guessed it — “Kiss.” Its themes reflect its own creation, by a celebrated Chilean playwright working under a commission by a theater in Dusseldorf. This is the first play Calderón has written in English, and he did so in part, he says, because the dramaturg at the German theater spoke English but not Spanish. With the end goal of a German-language play to be performed for a German audience, the easiest route was for the Spanish-speaking playwright to write it in English.

“Identity is such a fraught terrain in the American theater right now, not just the American culture,” Dower says, seated for an interview in the theater lobby in a break from rehearsal. “There’s a lot of conversation right now about who gets to tell the story. For an American writer who is not of Syrian descent to say that ‘I’m going to write a play about Syria’ right now would be very challenged and very challenging.”

Calderón, who is not of Arab descent and has not been to Syria, has in his prior work been concerned with the lingering legacy of Augusto Pinochet’s brutal dictatorship over Chile; an unspoken implication in “Kiss” is that Calderón sees parallels with the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad.

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“I really wanted to write something about Syria but of course it was almost impossible because I don’t speak the language, I don’t live there, I don’t have a connection to the culture other than doing all my research about the war,” Calderón says. “But I thought that theater could go to that place. So I decided to write this play in which the core of the play is the idea of misunderstanding — how well-meaning people can try to convey the horror of war but then fail at it, miserably.”

The layers go deeper. Though a title card announces the setting as Damascus in 2014, near the height of the violence there, the play opens as a sort of television soap opera being shot for a studio audience. An onstage camera crew carefully captures the action, displayed on two video monitors above the stage. It’s only after a good chunk of deliberately outsized melodrama that the theater troupe discovers the extent to which they missed the Syrian author’s point.

This lesson comes from a character based directly on a Syrian refugee who played the role in the original German production in 2014. (Following productions in Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, and Toronto, ArtsEmerson is among the first to present “Kiss” in English.) The woman, who escaped Syria and was working with other recent refugees trying to get resettled in Germany, still had family in Aleppo and was concerned the Syrian government would find out about the play and take some sort of retribution on her family. So she remained anonymous, performed in a disguise (which is now written into the script as part of the role), and left the theater after each performance through a separate exit so as not to be followed.

Her story, as represented in Calderón’s play, comes directly from her own life — rooting “Kiss” in the lived experience of a survivor of the Syrian conflict rather than just an outsider’s self-consciously awkward attempt to empathize. (Calderón says the woman’s family has since fled Aleppo and been able to relocate in Germany.)

Dower says that “Kiss” acts as a bookend with “Gardens Speak,” an immersive performance based on 10 oral histories of victims of the war in Syria that ArtsEmerson is presenting at the Paramount Center Nov. 8-19. One is “about what we understand and don’t understand about Syria” and the other is simply “about Syria,” he says.

He adds that a company of all students fits well with the theme of “Kiss,” which is arguably not cynical at all but in fact celebrates the effort to change the world through powerful theater.

Among the actors is Dee Dee Elbieh, who was born in United Arab Emirates to an Egyptian father and an American mother.

“Playing a character who gets it wrong was even more mortifying for me because this is something that I, as Dee Dee in real life, would really need to get right because it’s my family and my roots,” she says. “But I understand where this young troupe of actors would be coming from. They really care and they want to make their voices count and make theater that matters. We all want to make theater that matters. But how do you use your voice in the right way?”

And along the way, what gets lost in translation — and what doesn’t?

KISS

At the Jackie Liebergott Black Box, Paramount Center, Boston, through Nov. 19. Tickets: $60, 617-824-8400, www.artsemerson.org


Jeremy D Goodwin can be reached at jeremy@jeremydgoodwin.com
Follow him on Twitter @jeremydgoodwin.