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Theatre Review: Short North Stage’s Darkly Beautiful Kiss of the Spider Woman

Richard Sanford Richard Sanford Theatre Review: Short North Stage’s Darkly Beautiful Kiss of the Spider WomanEli Brickey, center, as legendary movie queen Aurora, performs with her dancers, left to right, Edgar Lopez, James Schoppe, Kevin Ferguson and Patrick Carmichael in the Short North Stage production of Kiss of the Spider Woman. Photo by Jason Allen.
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Short North Stage delivers another triumph with its lavish production, directed by Michael Licata, of an underrated musical by the team Kander and Ebb (with book by Terrence  McNally after the Manuel Puig novel) Kiss of the Spider Woman. This musical won seven Tonys and three Drama Desk Awards when it premiered on Broadway in 1993, but this is its first local production.

Set in an Argentine prison under a nameless dictator, Kiss of the Spider Woman traces an unlikely love triangle in blood, spit, and fire. Luis Molina (Scott Hunt), a homosexual man subject to sneering taunts of maricon and constant threats of sexualized violence, is given a new cellmate, Valentin Arregui (Joe Joseph), a Marxist revolutionary and political prisoner. The third member of the trio is Eli Brickey playing actress Aurora in Molina’s meticulous retellings/fantasies of her films and also an angel of death given form based on one of Aurora’s screen roles, the Spider Woman. The Warden (Todd Covert), a cruel God over the world of the prison, uses Molina’s good heart and Valentin’s desperation to predictably tragic ends.

Amari Ingram, left to right, and Alex Arnesto as prison guards abuse Joe Joseph as Valentin while caged prisoners James Schoppe, Nick Hardin, Patrick Carmichael, Kevin Ferguson and Edgar Lopez observe in the Short North Stage production of Kiss of the Spider Woman. Photo by Jason Allen.

Amari Ingram, left to right, and Alex Arnesto as prison guards abuse Joe Joseph as Valentin while caged prisoners James Schoppe, Nick Hardin, Patrick Carmichael, Kevin Ferguson and Edgar Lopez observe in the Short North Stage production of Kiss of the Spider Woman. Photo by Jason Allen.

Kiss of the Spider Woman traffics in fundamental human truths. The first is that knowing we’re loved and being able to love someone back is one of our most primal needs. The other is that the opiate we all indulge in, that we keep coming back to with a desperate hunger that this time it’s finally going to pay off, is fantasy. Part of the power of prison is the dream of getting out, given a voice in repeated refrains from the chorus of prisoners singing about life “Over the Wall.” Those refrains curdle and grow dark as their singing slides from fantasies about “big busted women” and “rum from the cane fields” to their wives screwing neighbors and their friends stealing their stashes; eventually, the chorus sputters into a bitter wistfulness as one of their number finally gets out.

The blood beneath the skin of that truth is the use of irony as a lens for understanding the world and an armor against it. This chamber production uses that irony like flayed skin over a spotlight, changing the colors and giving everything the duende (that smells a lot like death) it needs. Licata’s direction, aided by Jason Bolen’s sets, accomplish this by compressing everything. The bilevel set makes the action feel caged, in the audience’s face, with the back wall close enough no one ever gives the audience a break.

Eli Brickey, center, as legendary movie queen Aurora, performs with her dancers, left to right, Patrick Carmichael, Edgar Lopez, James Schoppe and Kevin Ferguson in the Short North Stage production of Kiss of the Spider Woman. Photo by Jason Allen.

Eli Brickey, center, as legendary movie queen Aurora, performs with her dancers, left to right, Patrick Carmichael, Edgar Lopez, James Schoppe and Kevin Ferguson in the Short North Stage production of Kiss of the Spider Woman. Photo by Jason Allen.

The fantasy sequences are just ramshackle enough, the impoverished dreams of people being starved of desire and hope; Edward Carignan’s choreography has that same red-blooded, raw intensity. Eli Brickey’s work as an aerialist (with consultant Mikey Thomas) is dazzling. The Spider Woman soaring (from silks, of course) gives a rich contrast to the earthbound characters but lets us see the muscles tense, the little hesitation as she moves on the rope with a little nod to BDSM when we see her within the web, towering over us.

In many ways, Kiss of the Spider Woman is Kander and Ebb’s purest, most distilled score. And, despite worse than usual sound problems, this production more than does those gorgeous, heartbreaking songs justice. Hunt’s Molina is one of the most devastating portraits of a person trying to live in the world on close to his terms I’ve ever seen with a vibrato that rips hearts right out of rib cages. Brickey squeezes her voice for maximum nuance, shading songs like “Russian Movie,” “I Do Miracles” and the eponymous number with the implication that the world will eat us all. Joseph’s Valentin, when he slips out of the straight man he’s forced to play for most of the score, nails two devasting turns as we watch him coerce Molina into going to his almost-certain death and recounting “[his] movie” where we see his dreams are as fantastic and as unlikely as any sequined Aurora melodrama.

Lesser characters are vital with the small chorus of Aurora’s Men/Prisoners playing up the thin veil but insurmountable gap between fantasy and reality in that prison with uniformly strong voices and the arresting Alex Amesto’s Esteban and Amari Ingram’s Marcos as a combination Keystone Kops and razor-sharp bear trap in service of Covert’s Warden. The six-piece band led by Philip Brown Dupont highlights that blood-dark pulse under everything with Tom Regouski’s reeds, including some barbed-wire flute, and Bryan Tysl’s accordion, nodding to Piazzola but also with some of Guy Kulcevsek’s dissonance and modern rhythms, as standouts.

With Kiss of the Spider Woman, a rarely performed musical with subject matter that can be hard to stomach, is given a production that’s impossible to look away from. This production shows us all, again, what Short North Stage does better than anyone else in town.

Kiss of the Spider Woman runs through November 20 with performances at 8:00 p.m. Thursday through Saturday and 3:00 p.m. Sunday. For tickets and more info, visit shortnorthstage.org.

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