Kiss of the Spider Woman
nytheatre.com review by David Johnston
September 13, 2007
Kiss of the Spider Woman, based on Manuel Puig's novel of the same name, is a grim tale of the politics of torture and betrayal in a South American prison. Two men, one homosexual, one a political prisoner for his left-wing views, are cellmates. The flamboyantly homosexual Molina passes the time by telling plotlines from films, all starring his favorite actress, a B-movie queen named Aurora. These tales take the form of elaborate musical numbers, in the style of films of the '30s and '40s, one featuring Aurora in the role of sinister "Spider Woman."
Now, at the Vortex Theatre, playing at the tiny Sanford Meisner on Eleventh Avenue, director Gisela Cardenas has unveiled her radical re-thinking of the John Kander and Fred Ebb musical, similar to John Doyle's recent stripping-down of Sweeney Todd. This Spider Woman follows the current trend of taking large-scale Broadway works and reducing them to minimal orchestrations and visuals. Granted, this trend flows from the impossible economics of producing musicals in New York City. But in the hands of gifted artists, the approach can yield surprises.
The audience at the Sanford Meisner is seated behind a fence, against the walls of the theatre. Inmates crawl about underneath, sing, stamp, bang on buckets, and hurl taunts. Guards in riot gear stride forth with nightsticks, and shine flashlights at the audiences' faces, examining them one by one. It seems like we're in for an evening of Kander and Ebb by way of Marat/Sade.
The approach is at times very successful. Molina (David Macaluso) and Valentin (Max Ferguson) are trapped on a platform in the center of the playing space. For Molina's fantastical stories, he opens out into the full area of Jian Jung's innovative set design, and the whole space comes alive with the power of his imaginative life. The intimacy of hearing the Kander and Ebb score in such close proximity is thrilling, particularly in the rousing "The Day After That." And Cardenas refuses to shy away from the truly sickening aspects of the material. The stink of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay is everywhere, from the bags on prisoners' heads to the dog barks in the distance.
David Macaluso's Molina is less overtly flamboyant than other interpretations, but his voice is fine and expressive. This is a Molina not always leading with the heart, but one capable of rational, even cold calculation. In the less flashy role of Valentin, Ferguson spends a lot of stage time in Act One listening to Molina's tales. In Act Two, he tells his own, and Ferguson is utterly convincing as the reckless revolutionary, who can't help falling in love with a rich girl.
Cardenas's approach does have some serious missteps. In the original 1993 Broadway musical, the Spider Woman/Aurora was embodied by the magnificent Chita Rivera. Cardenas has split the role of Aurora into three performers; Michael Beatty, Damien DeShaun Smith, and Nikki Van Cassele. Instead of costumes suggesting old-style movie musicals, all three are dressed as if on the way to a midnight showing of Rocky Horror Picture Show. These are gifted musical performers, but there seems to me to be no practical or aesthetic reason for the directorial choice. It reads more like an arbitrary conceit and dilutes the potency of Puig's archetype of death and femininity.
This Kiss of the Spider Woman is not for everyone. Aficionados of the original Broadway score may object to the orchestral reductions, as some were with Doyle's Sweeney Todd. But Cardenas is a real directorial talent. She may stumble, but no one can accuse her of half-measures. It's not an easy night at the theatre, but Kiss of the Spider Woman shouldn't be easy.