KISS 480x190I wish you could see “Kiss” at Woolly Mammoth Theatre the way I did: Without a lot of advance insight, no prior research and only the vague knowledge it was an adaptation of a foreign play.

That explained what appeared to be a light romantic play of star-crossed partners, with somewhat stilted lines and melodramatic turns, culminating in a woman who collapses in heartbreak — all played of laughs by a nonetheless talented cast.

Yet, when the action was interrupted for a “talk back” with the playwright, via Skype from abroad, things changed quickly.

No, this was not a romantic comedy at all. It was a work of outcry and protest over the horrors of war in Syria. The well-meaning American troupe who had found the play on the internet had missed every one of its pointed political signals and dropped some of its most important stagecraft. Nor was this necessarily the playwright they were addressing, and the connection was faulty; and the lights had to be cut and suddenly she’s gone altogether.

The cast, realizing they did the whole thing wrong, now starts quickly over, adding their sobering newfound knowledge of the metaphors they were missing. Instead of broad comic exaggeration, there is terrified urgency, gunshots and bombs are heard; the little set is exploded into a much larger, sparse one. Pages of the script are scattered about, fluttering like like ashes. And the effect is not unlike that in those State Farm ads where there are two readings of the same line: “I can’t believe this is my car!” by both the overjoyed teen who gets one for her birthday, and the distraught guy who discovers his car stripped on the street.

The shift in tone is so sudden in “Kiss,” some in the audience couldn’t quite navigate it, still laughing in the second half when things long since stopped being funny.

It’s not so much bait and switch as: Open your eyes and see what’s going on the world.

Award-winning Chilean playwright Guillermo Calderon had that intent in trying to tackle the Syrian civil war and its refugee crisis, but in a way that also addressed the struggles of presenting real-life crises in art, deliberately referencing soap operas because it’s such a popular form in Syria. One of the country’s most famous soap stars is also one of the most outspoken critics of the Assad regime; the song “Mother, What’s with the Wind,” which is sung sadly in the second half, is actually a rallying anthem for the opposition. And the “Kiss” in the title is actually a euphemism for a far more insidious interrogation technique.

Even in its relatively tame start, “Kiss” is not without its real world political echoes: Its depiction of unwanted, predatory pursuit of women and cries of “Don’t touch me!” take on added meaning when such unlikely accusations are attached to a candidate for the country’s highest office, touching off a landslide of thousands of formerly-repressed personal stories of sexual assault.

By the end, though, the effect is rattling and urgent for another corner of the world, riddled with destruction, death, camps of refugees and a glowering poster of Assad amid it all.

It’s a punch of reality by a theater group that prides itself on reacting quickly to world events — a handout of how to help is given at the show’s end.

Director Yury Urnov is completely in tune with what the playwright is doing and gets his strong cast to give widely divergent performances. Standouts among them are Shannon Dorsey, whose seeming romantic indecision in the first half is sadly explained in the second; Gabriela Fernanez-Coffey, as the late-arriving soap, is also a fulcrum of intensity. Joe Mallon and Tim Getman are good opposite them and a special mention is due Lelia Tahaburt and Ahmad Kamal who appear on the other end of that crucial Skype call.

That scene is made most effective by projections designer Alexandra Kelly Colburn on a set by Misha Kachman that is full of surprise, augmented by Max Doolittle’s lights and James Bigsbee Garver’s sound.

But forget what I’ve said here; go with an open mind and hang on.


“Kiss” continues through Nov. 6 at Woolly Mammoth, Washington D.C.