Chilean playwright/director/screenwriter Guillermo Calderón is only in his mid-40s, but he’s been working long enough to see his country evolve from a military dictatorship to a liberal democracy. His plays have been performed far beyond the borders of his homeland. They typically deal with war and frequently evince a sort of hand-wringing over art’s inability to prevent atrocities. (A 2013 New York Times profile reported that Calderón’s uncle was one of the thousands who “disappeared” under General Augusto Pinochet’s brutal 17-year regime.) Neva, Calderón’s 2007 Spanish-language play about actors rehearsing The Cherry Orchard against the backdrop of the Russian Revolution of 1905, was translated into English and made its U.S. debut three years ago.
Woolly Mammoth has secured the American debut of his latest variation on this theme: Kiss concerns a group of four (apparently) American actors performing a play they believe to have been written by a mysterious Syrian dramatist about the daily hell of the civil war that has claimed hundreds of thousands of lives there since 2011. Their performance takes the form of the Syrian soap operas that air nightly during Ramadan, often concealing payloads of socio-political criticism beneath a surface of sudsy melodrama. Doubling down on the self-referentiality, the play-within-the-play is about two couples meeting for an evening of appointment television, seemingly one of those agitprop soaps.
One-by-one the players arrive at the set of the apartment—that tellingly occupies only a tiny parcel of Woolly’s spacious rehearsal hall—and slowly sketch a love triangle. One of them confesses his feelings for the other’s partner, while his buddy reveals his plans to propose. The men are Joe Mallon and Tim Getman; the ladies are Gabriela Fernandez-Coffey and Shannon Dorsey, fresh off her triumphant turn in Woolly’s superb An Octoroon last summer.
Once the novelty of watching good actors (all but Mallon are Woolly company members) giving deliberately overripe performances wears off—and it doesn’t take long—we’re on alert for Calderón’s grand gambit to reveal itself. There are small clues that all is not as it seems: The way sound designer James Bigsbee Garber underlines selected bits of dialogue with an electronic echo, for example. But we’d sense that something was up even without these hints, because it simply isn’t plausible that Woolly would bother with a piece of material as thin and dull as Kiss’s protracted opening third.
Well, surprise: The director (Fernandez-Coffey) has arranged for a post-show-within-the-show Skype Q-and-A with the playwright. Seemingly expecting Bashar Hafez al-Assad’s gestapo to kick in her door at any moment, the woman (Lelia TahaBurt) speaks softly from a secret location, her face hidden beneath a wig and sunglasses. She speaks through an interpreter played by Ahmad Kamal. As the actors pepper her with sweetly dopey questions about her process and their characters, the degree to which they’ve misinterpreted her work becomes clear.
If they were Syrian, she tells them, they would understand. But they’re not. Neither is Calderón.
So the actors try it again, with adjustments. They use the whole room this time. There are strobe lights. Projected combat footage. Recorded gunshots. Acting-class exercises—including burpees!—and exhortations to one another to “Keep going!” once they run out of scripted material.
These are remarkable actors, some of Woolly’s best. Their ability to repeat the same words we heard earlier with radically altered intention would prove that, even if they weren’t familiar players. But Caldéron’s attempt to create an Epic (in the intentionally alienating Brechtian sense) leaves them stranded. Even accounting for the nuance-scrambling effects of a Chilean playwright writing in Spanish and English about an Arabic-speaking country, his script doesn’t reflect any more insight into life during wartime than the Talking Heads song “Life During Wartime” did in three minutes and 41 seconds, 37 years ago.
Art is supposed to scratch at our empathic zones and force us to feel what we don’t allow ourselves to feel reading the news from Aleppo (or not reading it, if you’re running for President on the Libertarian ticket): That the fear and suffering of these far away people is real. Liberated from the strict fidelity to the facts that binds journalists, artists dramatize freely to chip away at the remove that makes it possible to read a newspaper without curling up into the fetal position. But when dramatists fail, they run the risk of trivializing whatever calamity they’d hoped to illuminate.
When a playwright decides that the most truthful way to address a humanitarian catastrophe is to make a play about making a play about it, they’re basically throwing up their hands.
This happens more often than one might expect. Two-and-a-half years ago, Woolly gave us the regional premiere of We Are Proud to Present a Presentation About the Herero of Namibia, Formerly Known as Southwest Africa, From the German Sudwestafrika, Between the Years 1884-1915, a chronicle as clumsy as its name. It followed six actors—actors vastly dumber than any real actor I have ever met—as they struggled feebly to “devise” a show about an all-but-forgotten genocide.
Its author, Jackie Sibblies Drury, seized upon this play-about-playmaking angle after spending a chunk of her grad-school years struggling to write a more conventional historical drama about the tragedy. I can’t know how good or bad the drafts Sibblies abandoned were or how successful they might have been at reviving awareness of the of the German abuses in Namibia. I can only report that We Are Proud to Present… was, and I pray shall remain, the worst play I have ever seen. It argues that the theatermaker’s process is just as important as the experience of the victims of genocide. That is a monumentally arrogant and wrongheaded position. Immoral, even. (The play has been seen in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, and London, to generally enthusiastic notices.)
Kiss isn’t as bad as that. For one thing, it’s an hour shorter. And it never sinks to the kind of desperate shock tactics We Are Proud to Present… does. But it makes a present-day travesty seem distant and artificial.
It happens. Woolly is the boldest company in the city, more afraid of mediocrity than of abysmal failure. The fearlessness and appetite for invention that makes breathtaking work like 2012’s Mr. Burns or 2013’s Stupid Fucking Bird or An Octoroon (though that one was staged elsewhere first) possible means they’re sometimes going to lay an egg. Kiss is one of those.
At Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company to Nov. 6. 641 D ST. NW. $20-$54. (202) 393-3939. woollymammoth.net.