- Kiss of the Spider Woman
- Music by John Kander . Lyrics by Fred Ebb
- Book by Terrence McNally based on the novel by Manuel Puig
- Directed by Eric Schaeffer
- Produced by Signature Theatre
- Reviewed by Gary McMillan
Seductive. Intense. Breathtaking. Kiss of the Spider Woman, Signature’s opening salvo in its Kander and Ebb Celebration, is a triumph from the opening note to the touchingly bittersweet end. The stars must have been aligned just so when director Eric Shaeffer assembled this cast and creative team – there is not a weak element here.
Spider Woman follows the personal transformations of two very, very different political prisoners who become cellmates. Homosexual window-dresser Luis Alberto Molina, a naïve man, has been caught in a sexual entrapment sting operation and sentenced to eight years in a Latin American prison. He has endured three years of humiliation by dissociating from his brutal environment into a cinematic reverie where he channels the glamorous movie roles of his actress-idol Aurora. Valentin Arregui, a Marxist revolutionary, is the newest victim of sadistic guards who are determined to learn the identities of his rebel comrades. He is paired with Molina in hopes that the timid window-dresser can be bribed or coerced into eliciting and betraying Valentin’s secrets. The two prisoners clash and bond and change in unexpected ways. The musical does not simplify the richness of the characters and their evolving relationship, so the motivations behind their actions remain thought-provokingly complex and ambiguous, at least until the tragic climax burns away the dross. What is particularly important here is the juxtaposition of sexual minority rights versus economic/political/social rights, and the ultimate realization that sexual minority rights ARE an economic/political/social right.
The jewel in the crown of this production is Natascia Diaz. Even before you see Aurora, her rich, sultry voice flows out and suffuses the audience; it envelopes, caresses and hopefully/hopelessly seduces. When she first appears, and at every entrance thereafter, well …, as Lord Byron wrote:
- She walks in beauty, like the night
- Of cloudless climes and starry skies
- And all that’s best of dark and bright
- Meets in her aspect and her eyes
Diaz “IS” Garbo and Dietrich and Stanwyck and Leigh … and every diva who ever graced the silver screen.
Aurora’s film catalog is the mythos which sustains Molina. When Valentin becomes his cellmate, Molina selflessly – it would seem – plunges in to nurse his wounds. Hunter Foster captures all sides of Molina, ranging from fey to acerbic to fierce. To bridge the gap between himself and Valentin, Molina assumes not only Aurora’s persona, but another mythical role, Scheherazade. In re-telling Aurora’s films, Molina draws Valentin into Aurora’s spell (which Molina has assumed). A thousand and one nights, a thousand and one motion picture moments.
Will Chase, as Valentin, is the show’s spark – like rage against the state or flint on stone. Chase captures Valentin’s passion for social justice in every word and song.
Steven Cupo will creep you out as the Warden. He’s a past master at Kander and Ebb creepiness, having scored a Helen Hayes Award as the emcee in Signature’s Cabaret a dozen or so years ago. Virginia is for lovers; Argentina is for Nazis? That is Cupo’s Warden in a nutshell.
Chanez McQuay, as Molina’s mother, and Erin Driscoll, as Valentin’s upper-class love, Marta, are both endearing. The quartet of Molina and his mother, Valentin, and Marta singing “Dear One” would melt a heart of stone.
Adam Koch creates a chilling prison set of bars, corrugated metal, spiral staircases and moving catwalk, an Abu Ghraib into which little or no natural sunlight or public scrutiny can penetrate. This is not the first Signature show to benefit from Chris Lee’s talented lighting design, but his work is riveting. He makes the grim and gritty more sinister and infuses the fantasy film sequences with both glamour and mystery. From the flicker of a motion picture projector to a prison cell formed by bars of light, his lighting design reinforces the mood and drama. Prisoners and guards must be clothed, but wait, wait, wait until you see how Anne Kennedy dresses Aurora. Karma Camp’s choreography is sleek and sexy, capturing 40’s films as well as classic Latin dance.
Shaeffer captures the glamour and grit, the heart and heartbreak, that are the core of Kander and Ebb’s work.
- When: thru April 20
- Where: Signature Theatre, 4200 Campbell Ave, Arlington, VA 22206
- Tickets: $55 – $69
- Info: 703 820-9771