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‘Kiss’ brings the metatheatrical to the Wash. U. stage

Katie Bry | Contributing Writer

A play within a play, a drama inside a drama, reveals the realities of a world of destruction.

This weekend, Washington University’s Performing Arts Department presented “Kiss,” a play by Guillermo Calderon. Many Wash. U. students contributed to this production by acting, designing the set and lights and working in the production crew. The play had two halves, each with a very different tone.

The first half consists of four students, senior Anna McConnell, senior Scott Greenberg, freshman Austin Moulder and sophomore Natalie Thurman portraying American actors in a soap opera-esque play within the play “Kiss” itself. They display a dramatic, over-the-top love story about betrayal between best friends set against the backdrop of the Syrian war. The play within a play ends with a dramatic death scene, but the comedy during this first half of the show was palpable: Almost every other line evoked unanimous laughter from the audience.

After the play’s actors conclude their act, one character reveals that she also directed the play. She explains that she and the other actors tried to reach the author of the play while rehearsing and learned that they could Skype with her that very night. The Syrian playwright (played by freshman Sabrina Sayed) lives in a Red Cross refugee camp, and comes on a projector screen with her translator (played by second year master’s student Tyler Parker).

As the characters, who had naively directed the humorous preceding play, begin to ask the author questions, they realize they have misrepresented aspects of the work because of their interpretation of the culture of wartime Syria. The playwright explains that the play is a fantasy in a world of destruction, where the people of Syria can gather to feel something other than the war.

However, it becomes clear that when performed in Syria the feeling of war was inescapable because Syrian viewers would watch the play through holes in their living rooms, hear gunshots in the background and understand the devastating reality of dialogue that the characters misinterpreted as humor.

For example, the actors believe that one character cheats on her boyfriend because she tells him that she kissed someone, whereas Syrians would know that “kiss” refers to being raped. Similarly, they believe that one character in the play dies of a broken heart, when in reality she had been dying from exposure to poisonous gas throughout the entire play.

The characters slowly begin to understand their mistakes. After the call ends, they decide to start the play over. The words are more or less the same, but this time, the play within a play takes a shift in tone. The actors evoke more intense emotions of despair and react more in tune with the situations they have now learned the truth about.

“It has just been an exciting experience seeing how you can take such lines and manifest them into different tones,” Moulder said. “Something can sound comical in the first half and somber in the second.”

Director William Whitaker explained that the script did not explicitly explain how the play should end. In the Performing Arts Department’s version, the characters tear down the living room walls to reveal devastation that represents the war in Syria, with a screen projecting scenes of civilians in the war.

The newly-enlightened actors continue the story beyond the character’s death which ended the original play and perform different scenarios, pushing the story further as they imagine what it could be like to live in Syria at this time. Whitaker believed that this represented the characters’ bravery to fail again.

“I think in that bravery, the play moves into this metatheatrical thing where Syria gets closer because we are willing to face it,” Whitaker explained. “The artists didn’t stay in their comfort zones, they [went] out to meet this terrible truth that is happening in the world.”

The Performing Arts Department production committee decided to pick a play this season that could act in response to a changing set of circumstances because of the last election, according to Whitaker. Moulder believed that this production could help Wash. U. students escape their bubble and come to terms with reality, as the characters in play did as well.

“These bubbles that we create and these communities that we try to stay a part of often limit us from seeing what is beyond,” Moulder said. “I think this is a perfect example in which we can recognize that we have this privilege here at Wash. U., being college students just going to class every day when there are people out there who are struggling just to stay alive.”

The tone of the audience reflected the tones of the play as well. The hearty laughter of the first half turned into a contemplative silence sprinkled with sniffles, as the audience attempted to take in the reality of devastation.

“I wanted to see if it was possible with a work of art to get people to just really get it to have some semblance of not just a headline, not just a thing you see on the news, but to really feel what it must be like or could be like to be in such a place,” Whitaker said. “I wanted that so that we are reminded of our privilege and our comfort, and are derailed by it [because] this could be you, this could be us.”