Kiss at Haven Chicago Credit: Austin D. Oie

There is a great deal to like about Haven’s Kiss by Guillermo Calderón, directed by Monty Cole, about two Syrian couples who meet to watch a popular soap opera but whose lives become a soap opera, overly dramatic and comical. Youssif (Salar Ardebili) loves Hadeel (Arti Ishak), but she’s with Ahmed (Cole), who may or may not love Bana (Cassidy Slaughter-Mason). It’s a love rhombus. The acting is delightful, the first act very funny and engrossing, and the physicality both sensual and silly.

The play, set in Damascus in 2014, takes place in three acts. The first act is a straightforward soap opera with little reference to the Syrian war zone. The second act gets meta as the actors break the fourth wall and wrestle with themes of cultural appropriation and artistic interpretation, learning along with the audience how they misinterpreted parts of the first act. In the third act, the actors reenact the story with their newfound understanding, though not always honoring the new insights they have just received. While infusing it with brutal realities of life in Syria, they still play it like a comedic soap opera.

Calderón takes welcome risks with act two that are often not seen in theater, yet it comes across as an awkward attempt at deconstruction. Tonal shifts are messy, leaving one to wonder if Kiss is a farce or sincere. In the final act the impact is lost, undercutting the heavy realities of Syrian life introduced previously, offering nothing new, and returning to the tone of act one. The lobby displays educational material on contemporary Syria, including the popularity of soap operas that are often politically subversive, yet the play itself falls short of moving audiences to action.  v