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Calderon's 'Kiss' Full Of Seismic Psychological Surprises At Yale Rep

If you want theater that questions the very nature of theater, that explores whether art is honest, that seeks the hidden truths in scripted dialogue, you go to the Yale Repertory Theatre.

This season alone has given us the myth-exploding “Father Comes Home From the Wars,” a dreamscape adaptation of “Native Son,” the stand-up/blow-up deconstructions of Rude Mechs’ “Field Guide” and a bracingly comic take on Ibsen’s “An Enemy of the People.”

Guillermo Calderon’s radical political piece “Kiss” is the perfect capper to such a season. This is a play that folds in upon itself, questions its own realities and ultimately asks what right we have to dramatize the realities of others.

Calderon often messes with the heads of his audiences, blurring lines of theater and reality. His “Escuela,” presented at the Rep’s “No Boundaries” series in 2016, showed political overthrow as something to be taught and practiced in a classroom for maximum presentational impact.

“Kiss” is less radical than that. It’s a relationship play of sorts. But it contains the extremes and the contradictions, not to mention the political consciousness, of Calderon’s best work. “Kiss” is funny and tragic, hyperbolic and completely natural, dizzying and sometimes distant.

So what is it about? You won’t hear it from me. There is no part of the plot, no description of the characters that would be better than telling you nothing at all.

All I can tell you is what this “Kiss” isn’t. It’s not the rock band. It’s not the Prince song. It’s not the FM radio station. The word “kiss,” when it is uttered in the play, doesn’t mean what you might think it means.

Yet “Kiss” is not some spoiler-alert thriller, like “Who killed Keyser Soze?” It’s a play of deep realism. Its surprises have to do with how people behave based on what information they have been given. Its drama arises from scenes of romance, compassion, jealousy and incredulity. It earns its laughs and shocks honestly, thanks to remarkable performances by six young actors. Two of them, Abubakr Ali and Sohina Sidhu, are currently students at the Yale School of Drama. Another, James Cusati-Moyer, is a recent YSD grad. The other three — Hend Ayoub, Ian Lassiter and Rasha Zamamiri — are new to the Rep, and fit in fine. The cast members are comfortable with each other, comfortable enough to challenge each other continually throughout the show. They are easy to watch and neatly dressed (by costume designer Cole McCarty) in street clothes that seem almost comically hip. Cusati-Moyer and Ayoub in particular find a looseness both in how they speak and in how they move in those semi-classy clothes that adds to the general feeling of mystery and oddness that pervades the play.

You suspect early on in “Kiss” that some major shifts of style and focus might be in store. The set (designed by Ao Li) seems too flimsy, its walls wobbling slightly each time the door of the small apartment set gets slammed. The acting can seem stilted, until you sense that the melodramatic sheen is deliberate. At other times, the style is uncomfortably real, and the topics at hand so of-the-moment that when I got in my car after seeing “Kiss,” one of the news items on the radio seemed to directly pertain to what had just been discussed onstage.

The subject, loosely, is Syria. (I’m not divulging anything much by sharing that.) The situation is described in human, civilian terms. In the pre-show announcements for “Kiss,” the Rep promotes the local work of IRIS (Integrated Refugee and Immigrant Services) in resettling Syrian families in the U.S.

Director Evan Yionoulis — a regular director at the Yale Rep for the last two decades, soon to leave her faculty position at the Yale School of Drama to head the Drama Division at Juilliard — has done many shows in the past that have kept audiences guessing, and staying raptly attentive, right up to the curtain call. There was the violence — and the preternaturally calm aftermath of that violence, of George F. Walker’s “Heaven” — back in 2000.

There were the expressionless mannequins witnessing the explosive emotional outbursts of Caryl Churchill’s “Owners” in 2013. On the fun side, there was the delirious disco finale of “The King Stag” in 2004. Yionoulis cannily choreographs each cough, clench or askance look of the drama (or is it a romance? even a comedy?) so that it becomes a clue to Calderon’s tightly wound characters.

The shocks in “Kiss” are not loud or bombastic. They are more like seismic psychological disturbances. Likewise, there are some impressive sound effects (by Michael Costagliola, who also composed some stirring soundtrack music) and projections (designed by Wladimiro A. Woyno R.), but they are subtle and naturalistic effects, not noisy grabs for attention.

You will likely be unsettled by “Kiss,” but its disturbances are internal, not external. Brace your mind and open your heart.

KISS is performed through May 19 at the Yale Repertory Theatre, 1120 Chapel St., New Haven. Performances are Tuesday through Friday at 8 p.m. and Saturday at 2 and 8 p.m. Tickets are $44 to $90. 203-432-1234 and yalerep.org.

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