By Manning Harris
Spanish filmmaker Luis Bunuel once wrote, “Of course, fantasy and reality are equally personal, and equally felt, so their confusion is a matter of only relative importance.” American writer Joan Didion observed, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” Both of these artists could be PR specialists for Actor’s Express’ new production of the musical “Kiss of the Spider Woman,” running through October 7.
This unusual comedy/drama, based on Argentine writer Manuel Puig’s novel, was made into a nonmusical film in 1985 and a Tony-winning Broadway musical in 1993, starring Chita Rivera, which I was fortunate enough to see.
You might not think that a musical play dealing with prisoners of conscience incarcerated and tortured in hidden jails would work. Sad to say, we live in a world where such goings-on seem ever more prevalent. Just ask Amnesty International.
Molina (Craig Waldrip), a gay window dresser imprisoned in a Latin American jail, tells himself stories in order to live, as Ms. Didion said. He retreats into memories of his favorite movies as a survival mechanism; he’s especially inspired by the hauntingly beautiful Aurora (Liberty Cogen), the “Spider Woman,” who, while enchanting, becomes a beguiling symbol of escape—and death. Molina is joined in his cell by a Marxist revolutionary named Valentin (Bryant Smith), who has been beaten and tortured; Molina attempts to comfort Valentin by enacting his movie fantasies for them both. Though he is initially disgusted by Molina’s fey ways and apparent lack of political convictions, Valentin is won over by Molina’s compassion, humor, and decency, and the two become strange bedfellows, as it were. Meanwhile, the Warden (John Benzinger) is relentless and cunning.
“Kiss of the Spider Woman” comes with impressive credentials: a score by John Kander and Fred Ebb (“Cabaret”), a book by Terrence McNally, and original direction by Harold Prince. The Express’ Artistic Director Freddie Ashley does the honors here, assisted by choreographer Ricardo Aponte. Mr. Ashley does a fine job of steering a large, energetic cast and turns “Spider Woman” into an exotic, ultimately moving evening of musical theatre.
Philip Male’s set and scenic designs are masterful; Elizabeth Rasmusson’s costumes, especially for Aurora and Molina are suitably fabulous. For some reason Act I seemed a tad long, though Patty Guenthner’s rendition of “You Could Never Shame Me,” sung to her son Molina, was a moving high point, just as it was on Broadway. Act II, on the other hand, took off like a shot and almost seemed a different play—it was riveting.
Ultimately, the success of “Spider Woman” rest on the shoulders of Molina, Valentin, and Aurora; and here we are not disappointed. For this viewer, the performance of the evening was Mr. Waldrip’s Molina—subtle, moving, funny, heroic—he hits all the right notes, and in addition is a fine singer. Mr. Smith’s Valentin is a singer of almost operatic power; he seems a tad robust for a prisoner, but then he’s only been there a short time. He and Mr. Waldrip are especially moving in the final scenes.
Ms. Cogen is beautiful and compelling as Aurora. There seems a sort of unwritten Murphy’s Law that if there are mike/sound problems, they will afflict the lead player. Not to worry; it’ll be ironed out by the time you see the show, and she, too, has a lovely voice. In fact, one feels the entire production will get stronger and stronger–”The Day After That.” It’s a most compelling evening of theatre.
For tickets and information, visit actorsexpress.com.