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Review: ‘Kiss’ at the Odyssey: A rising Chilean playwright explores what gets lost in translation

Kristin Couture, from left, Natali Anna, Kevin Matthew Reyes and Max Lloyd-Jones in "Kiss' at the Odyssey Theatre.
Kristin Couture, from left, Natali Anna, Kevin Matthew Reyes and Max Lloyd-Jones in “Kiss’ at the Odyssey Theatre.
(Enci Box)
Theater Critic

A note in the press packet for the West Coast premiere of Guillermo Calderón’s “Kiss” at the Odyssey Theatre requests that critics “not give away details of the plot” in their reviews. That will make discussion of the play virtually impossible because any information that would shed light on the experience would qualify as a spoiler. But let me attempt to communicate some aspects of the meaning of the work without completely ruining the surprises the author engineers.

This is the first play written in English by the rising Chilean playwright and director, whose work (“Neva,” “Villa,” Diciembre”) I’ve come to know through productions at REDCAT and the Kirk Douglas Theatre. A rigorously experimental theater artist who is also a screenwriter (“Neruda”), Calderón is inexorably drawn to those points where art and politics uneasily intersect.

His playfully intellectual style can come across as distantly abstract, as though secrets are being guarded. Access to Calderón’s dramatic worlds is earned through unhurried attention. The work resists being used by both hostile and friendly agendas; it exists wholly on its own terms.

The biographical roots of Calderón’s performance aesthetic invite speculation. An article by Alisa Solomon in American Theatre notes that Calderón was born “two years before Augusto Pinochet overthrew Chile’s socialist president, Salvador Allende, in a violent coup.” His upbringing, clouded by the murder of his uncle by Pinochet’s security police, stressed caution. Politics were discussed by his middle-class family, but the conversation stayed inside the home.

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Theater has provided a vehicle for free expression for Calderón, but he has used it more for exploration than editorializing. Committed to the process of making art, he has found in the politics of collaboration expansive material for his questing intelligence.

Calderón sees the political universe in an artistic grain. Social relations in the rehearsal room not only reflect patterns in the wider society, but they bring a heightened awareness of the ironies and contradictions in how we negotiate between fictional realms and the workaday world.

“Kiss,” directed by Bart DeLorenzo, revolves around the performance of a Syrian soap opera that plays like the Middle Eastern equivalent of a telenovela. A group of actors from an unspecified country discovered this script, set in Damascus in 2014, on the Internet. The presentation is intended as a gesture of solidarity with the people of the war-ravaged country.

Calderón’s play is divided into three movements, each of which forces us to reconsider what we’ve seen before. I had some difficulty making sense of the final section of the play — uncertain whether the staging was compounding the drama’s blurriness or honoring it. My faith in DeLorenzo’s actors was shaky at times. I appreciated their energy, but Calderón’s work requires more severity before havoc can be meaningfully unleashed.

The questions posed by the play are profound. How can one culture ever know the circumstances of another? What is lost when a work of art is divorced from its communal context? How does the challenge of playing a character mirror the fumbling guesswork in all our relationships? Can the trauma of war be shared?

“Kiss” isn’t easy for a critic to discuss, but it’s gratifying to contemplate.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

‘Kiss’

Where: Odyssey Theatre, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., L.A.

When: 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays (check for additional performances); ends June 18

Tickets: $25-$34

Information: (310) 477-2055, Ext. 2, or www.odysseytheatre.com

Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes

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charles.mcnulty@latimes.com

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