Kiss of the Spider Woman
By John Kander (music), Fred Ebb (lyrics)
Riveting and period-perfect
|Boho Theatre Company presents|
|Kiss of the Spider Woman|
Review by Lawrence Bommer
Defying torture and worse, a gay prisoner and a political inmate share their sustaining fantasies in this richly persuasive bonding musical by Chicago and Cabaret creators John Kander and Fred Ebb and bookwriter Terrence McNally (inspired by Manuel Puig’s novel). Director Peter Marston Sullivan’s often heartbreaking revival (with superb musical direction by Elizabeth Doran) puts us there to keep it real (not always the case with the overwhelming Broadway production). Even the morphine-fueled, B-movie production numbers headlined by Jennifer T. Grubb’s riveting and period-perfect “Spider Woman” are clearly the escapist dreams of hard-hoping convicts.
In Kander and Ebb’s 1993 musical adaptation, with book by Terrence McNally (of Love! Valor! Compassion! fame), Hollywood visions become escapist illusions, binding dramatic opposites–a fearful gay windrow-dresser and devoted mama’s boy named Molina, imprisoned for propositioning a minor, and Valentin, a straight, unrepentantly idealistic political prisoner.
Their bridge-building is familiar to gays and lesbians from Manuel Puig’s novel, Pegasus Player‘s excellent local premiere of Puig’s dramatic version, Bailiwick Theatre’s local premiere of the musical, and the independent film starring William Hurt and the late Raul Julia: Seeming enemies build a passionate friendship and a larger loyalty out of small and large exchanges: Molina–who, it seems, has never loved a gay man or, for that matter, a grown-up–nonetheless helps Valentin to endure torture by inventing a stream of increasingly flamboyant scenarios (whose art increasingly mirrors their life) based on Aurora, a screen siren who does what Molina dreams. (And what he dreads—her “kiss of death.”) In turn Valentin infuses the apolitical Molina with newfound courage (though, as a flamer in Latin America, he needed big cojones just to survive). Fusing the feminine and masculine sources of their souls, they create a perfect human.
But–the musical is not without its drawbacks, especially as it distances us even further from the novel than did the dramatic version. Just as McNally’s The Lisbon Traviata showed how two bitchy divas conspire to trigger their own operatic tragedy, Kiss confronts us with two men obsessed with abstractions–Marxist justice and B-movie glamour–who, by exposing their favorite phantoms, expand their humanity and reclaim their dreams. Life imitates art and vice versa. But, unable to move us as the drama did, the musical goes wrong (and at times turns vulgar) by inventing characters who are better left as creations of the central duo (like the other prisoners and Molina’s best-left-unseen mother) and by trying to act out what was essentially imagination–the cellmates’ and ours.
Instead of showing how Molina’s cinema consolations eventually melt Valentin’s protective machismo, these fantasies–the Spider Woman‘s tango-esque production numbers–remain isolated, while in the second act Valentin has his separate, Les Miserables-like anthem, "The Day After That." The sharing is felt but not enough.
McNally unwisely jettisons the play’s film-noir scenario (which increasingly echoes the real-life action) in exchange for such disposable chorus romps as "Morphine Tango" and the Carmen Miranda-like first act finale "Gimme Love" . (You really feel the effect of Stephen Sondheim in Kander’s later music.) The progressively implausible second act suffers from Molina’s now-clumsy and pointless martyrdom (far less heroic than in the novel) and a trivializing apotheosis, "Only in the Movies," that implies that death is just the final fantasy. Molina’s sacrifice deserves better.
Vibrant and never offensively stereotypical as the window-dresser, an elegantly epicene Nathan Carroll is sufficiently simpatico in his too-limited scenes with Evan Tyrone Martin, a rugged and dignified Valentin. (The sexual and social differences between them are expanded here into a racial contrast as well.)
Performing on two levels of this very compact penitentiary, the busy male chorus do everything but molt, despite a cramped playing area that’s prison-like in its claustrophobia. Linda Fortunato’s vaguely Fosse-fueled choreography never gets too Vegas-slick to be believed. Above all, it’s amazing how good for each other–and for this very dramatic score–are Martin’s unflinchingly radical Valentin and Carroll’s seemingly delicate and ultimately heroic Molina. Equally balm and curse (like the spider woman’s kiss), the ending is both unalloyed wishful thinking and as devastating a finale as you’ll see in your next dream.
Kiss of the Spider Woman continues through June 30th at Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont (map), with performances Thursdays-Saturdays at 8pm, Sundays 2pm. Tickets are $25-$27, and are available by phone (773-975-8150) or online through TheaterWit.org (check for half-price tickets at Goldstar.com). More information at BohoTheatre.com. (Running time: 2 hours 20 minutes, includes an intermission)
Photos by Peter Coombs
Nathan Carroll (Molina), Evan Tyrone Martin (Valentin), Jennifer T. Grubb (Aurora, The Spider Woman), Caron Buinis (Molina’s mother), Scott Danielson (Warden), Jessica Kingsdale (Marta), Jonah Winston (Esteban), John Gurdian (Marcos), Tommy Rivera-Vega, Glenn Snellgrose, Daniel Spagnuolo, Neil Stratman, Jonathan Butler-Duplessis, Sean Knight (ensemble)
behind the scenes
Peter Marston Sullivan (director), Elizabeth Doran (music director), Linda Fortunato (choreography), Patrick Ham (set design), Diane Fairchild (lighting design), Bill Morey (costume design), Peter Robel (sound design, asst. director), Cassy Schillo (props design), Daniel Spagnuolo (asst. choreography), Meg Love (stage manager), Lorenzo Blackett (production manager), Kaela Altman (producer), Peter Coombs (photos).