“Kiss of the Spider Woman”
Through Oct. 7. 8 p.m. Wednesdays-Saturdays; 2 p.m. Sundays. $26-$47. Actor’s Express (King Plow Arts Center), 887 W. Marietta St., Atlanta. 404-607-7469. actors-express-com.
Bottom line: A respectable effort.
It’s a given that “Kiss of the Spider Woman” spins a fine line between illusion and reality. The action takes place (circa 1975) in a dingy Argentinean prison, where an unlikely bond develops between a pair of mismatched cellmates: Molina, an effeminate (i.e., gay) “sexual offender,” and Valentin, a rugged (i.e., straight) “political terrorist.” In a series of fantasy sequences, however, Molina temporarily escapes into the imaginary worlds of his favorite old movies, most of which star an alluring actress named Aurora.
Based on a stream-of-consciousness novel by Manuel Puig, and previously adapted for the screen as a drama with William Hurt, Raul Julia and Sonia Braga, the musical stage version of “Spider Woman” features songs by John Kander and Fred Ebb (“Cabaret,” “Chicago”) and a script by Terrence McNally (“Master Class”).
The show is a challenging and ambitious undertaking, even for a company as established as Actor’s Express (now in its 25th season). Artistic director Freddie Ashley’s production of it is certainly respectable, if not exactly remarkable – frequently blurring those inherent fine lines in the story instead of distinguishing them.
Dramatically, it might be a weakness of McNally’s writing that the crucial relationship between Molina and Valentin often feels too vaguely motivated and defined, as they go from defensive opponents to tentative friends to possible lovers. Do they form a genuine affection for one another, or are both of them merely using the other to further a personal or political agenda?
Ashley’s lead actors, Craig Waldrip (Molina) and Bryant Smith (Valentin), give earnest performances, but they don’t fully exploit the deeper layers to the characters. Likewise, sorely miscast as their common enemy, the prison warden, John Benzinger brings his patented smugness to a role that ought to pose a more serious and sinister threat.
Stylistically, as well, the contrast between reality and fantasy could be sharper. Although Ashley evokes a suitably squalid atmosphere in the prison scenes, the dream sequences somehow lack sufficient distinction. Rather than transporting Molina (or us) out of reality, the musical numbers seem like they’ve been transplanted into reality, which isn’t quite the same thing.
In most cases, Molina observes Aurora from a distance, as a figment of his imagination, but at other times the two of them interact directly. And it’s not always easy to appreciate the difference between when actress Liberty Cogen is playing Aurora, the movie star, and when she’s playing her alter-ego of sorts, a death incarnate known as the Spider Woman.
Even so, Cogen is a knockout in designer Elizabeth Rasmusson’s sensational costumes, and she invests a half-dozen or so big songs with considerable panache (choreography by Ricardo Aponte). Music director Seth Davis leads a four-piece band, but there’s a tinny quality to their accompaniment that doesn’t truly complement the lush Kander-Ebb score.
Notwithstanding all the flashy dance routines or the booming singing voice of Smith’s Valentin, the finest musical moment in the show is the quiet ballad “Dear One,” beautifully performed by Waldrip, Smith, Patty Guenthner (as Molina’s mother) and Paige Mattox (as Valentin’s girlfriend). As it happens here, contrary to Molina’s own assertion, movies aren’t always better than real life.