Tuesday, March 11, 2008


From: The Palm Beach Post

Date:January 29, 1999

Author: Hap Erstein

In 1976, Argentinian Manuel Puig wrote a powerful novel about two prisoners in a squalid, inhumane jail cell, reaching out to each other for their mutual survival. Called The Kiss of the Spider Woman, it later became an Oscar-winning movie and, even more unexpectedly, a Tony Award-winning musical.

It is a story whose dramatic punch is undeniable, regardless of the adaptation. Still, Puig is not much of a dramatist and his own stage version of the political saga - translated by Allan Baker - is rudimentary, at best. Now at the Coconut Grove Playhouse's renovated, intimate Encore Room, the production's saving graces are the performances of cellmates Tomas Milian and Chaz Mena.

Milian, an international film star, invests the role of apolitical homosexual window dresser Molina with an ethereal delicacy, conveying the man who escapes the harsh realities of prison with his vivid memories of the movies. Mena is aptly brutish as rabble-rouser Valentin, for whom the political cause is everything. Although the weak-willed Molina agrees to spy on Valentin for the warden, he finds himself falling in love instead. Initially, Valentin has no use for the effeminate queen, but Molina's movie narratives help the time pass and ultimately Valentin gains a lesson about tenderness from him.

There are advantages to Puig's adaptation approach of keeping the focus tight on the two main characters, but also disadvantages. It lacks a sense of the world outside - the police lurking just beyond their cell, Molina's dying, doting mother, Valentin's guerrilla confederates and his girlfriend.

Just as important and just as missing is some theatrical representation of the movies in Molina's mind, a romanticized image to contrast with the sordid conditions of their reality. This Kiss of the Spider Woman still works, even though Puig seems to have narrowed his own creation.

That abstract lyricism that is absent on the page is certainly present in Milian's performance. With a blond wig tucked under an arty beret and a draped feather boa for gestural effect, he visually captures the anomaly that is Molina. Early on, he sweeps the air with his masculine hands and hairy arms, flailing flamboyantly, sucking in his cheeks for histrionic poses. Gradually, he lets Valentin - and us - see the smaller, pitiable man behind the mask, an achingly honest act of openness.

It is probably inevitable that Molina overshadows the more conventional Valentin, but Mena manages to hold his corner of the stage with his bold characterization. Spider Woman is a study in contrasts, and Mena is most memorable when he is at his most vulnerable. Weakened by tainted food and unable to take a shower, he goes into an itching fit that will have theatergoers scratching in response.

Although director Roberto Prestigiacomo's production is not elaborate, Eric S. Nelson's lighting design is starkly mood-setting, notably with a film flicker effect which frames the evening and helps transitions between scenes. Also a plus is Steve Shapiro's sound design, an aural dimension that adds to the bleak atmosphere.

Ultimately, though, despite the flat, by-the-numbers adaptation, Kiss of the Spider Woman spins a web of the triumph of the human spirit.

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