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Anthony Chase

Caught in the web of the 'Spider Woman' at New Phoenix Theatre

The production of Manuel Puig’s "Kiss of the Spider Woman" now playing at New Phoenix Theatre gains its power from tight economical staging by director Victoria Perez and brilliant acting by Rolando Martin Gomez as Valentin and Rick Lattimer as Molina.

Many people know "Kiss of the Spider Woman" from the 1985 film or the 1995 Broadway musical. My first introduction was through the 1976 novel by Puig, which inspired all the rest. In fact, I taught the novel to a class of astonished undergraduates while teaching English at UB in 1982.

The challenge and the attraction of each adaptation of the story has been the unconventional form of a novel that has no narrative voice. The novel is comprised of dialogue between two contrasting men, with no indication of who is speaking.

Opposites in every way, Valentin and Molina are prisoners sharing a cell in a Buenos Aires prison for one month in 1975. Molina is an effeminate gay man, in jail for corruption of a minor. Valentin is a rugged political prisoner, confined for being part of a revolutionary group dedicated to the overthrow of the Argentine government.

Despite their vast differences, the two form a close bond through their conversations. To pass the time and to distract them from their circumstances, Molina recounts the plots of his favorite movies. Deeply romantic, Molina always identifies with the leading ladies. Valentin always sees the political implications of the movie fictions.

The play was adapted from the novel by Puig himself in 1983. While in the novel, Molina tells the stories of five films, here he describes only one, "Cat People," from 1942, in which a woman’s passions transform her into a panther and her kiss means death.

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An additional voice occasionally interrupts the dialogue in the form of official government documentation of the surveillance of the cellmates. This voice reveals that, in truth, Molina has been placed in a cell with Valentin deliberately, as a spy. Matters become even more complicated, however, when Molina begins to feel real affection for Valentin.

This production is placed in a sparse square set designed by Chris Wilson with the audience on all four sides. This confined space, just a floor with two beds and a corner kitchen, is ornamented only with a kind of crown molding of barbed wire that resembles a crown of thorns.

The strength of the production is established in the very first scene, as Gomez and Lattimer emphatically establish their contrasting characters through their sharp and energetic interaction.

Molina is the central focus of the play, and Lattimer gives a remarkable performance in the role. A dashingly handsome actor, whom I first saw many years ago as Romeo at SUNY Buffalo State, he entirely transforms himself to play Molina. Every gesture and every intonation is relaxed and real as Lattimer convincingly embodies this gentle soul, endowed with the courage of a titan.

Everything I despised about William Hurt’s clumsy and mannered yet Oscar-winning performance is redeemed here with a soulful and compelling creation of a complicated man who identifies powerfully with the women of cinema.

The performance is assisted by Richard Lambert’s excellent costumes for Molina; for the record, a macramé top is a much better choice for Lattimer’s compact and sturdy frame than it was for large and robust Mr. Hurt. The way Lattimer wears his clothes, or reacts to Valentin, heightens our awareness and understanding of Molina and his unspoken choices.

As Valentin, Gomez provides the perfect contrast to Lattimer. He strikes a tall and imposing figure. His deep and resonant voice growls beneath the timbre of the soft and gentle voice of Molina. His Valentin is single-minded, yet thoughtful. Through his rough and tempestuous exterior, we see flashes of a little boy who needs Molina’s motherly comfort and protection.

An excellent sound score by Roy Walker – exquisitely chosen selections of emotionally nuanced Argentine music, tangos, boleros – offers variations in tempo and emotional intensity, augmenting the production beautifully.

Guided by Perez, the actors hit the themes and motifs of Puig’s script with clarity and power. Listen for how often Valentin warns Molina against making attachments; for how often Molina warns Valentin not to trust him with information; for Valentin’s observation that being a woman should not make you a martyr, but at the same time we need to live our lives without fear of dying.

Indeed, this handsome production reminds me of everything I first loved about Puig’s novel. This is a powerfully affecting production.

Theater Review

“Kiss of the Spider Woman”

Four stars (out of four)

Presented by New Phoenix Theatre, 95 Johnson Park. Performances are 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday through March 28. Tickets are $30 general, $20 for students; “pay-what-you-can” Thursdays, and available by calling (853-1334) or at www.newphoenixtheatre.org.

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