Kiss of the Spider Woman
Directed by Stephen Colyer
13 July – 8 August 2010
Kiss of the Spider Woman has an impressive biography as an artistic work. Born as a novel in 1976 by Argentine novelist Manuel Puig, it was then turned into a movie in 1985 with William Hurt who, interestingly, is currently in town playing in the Sydney Theatre Company’s production of Long Day’s Journey into Night.
The movie was a smash hit and won an Oscar which prompted the famous team of John Kander and Fred Ebb ( Cabaret & Chicago ) to convert the regime of Argentine dictator Jorge Rafael Videla into a musical. With a book by Terrence McNally ( Love! Valour! Compassion! ) and directed on Broadway by Hal Prince ( Phantom of the Opera, Sweeney Todd ), Kiss went on to win seven Tony Awards.
And so it is that almost 20 years after its Broadway success, director Stephen Colyer has chosen to stage the premiere of Kiss in Sydney in the somewhat compact Darlinghurst Theatre. And it is this factor that paradoxically provides this production of Kiss with the basis for its greatest virtues and flaws.
Kiss of the Spider Woman’s narrative examines a world that in many respects has vanished. The ardent Marxist and the camp window dressing homosexual are now trite stereotypes where political realties about the left and right are being subsumed by greater forces and the sheer visibility and advancement of gay rights have shown that the visible homosexual is no longer just the camp variety.
This is a problem for the work and I would suggest for the audience, because in a way it lacks the sheer exuberance of other Kander & Ebb works to stand on its own as sheer entertainment; but it will communicate with an older audience who will remember the political realities that the Cold War and the fight between Marxism, Facism and Capitalism had over much of the 20th Century.
Having said that there is much to enjoy in this piece. The music is sublime at times and the relationship that builds between the two central characters, Molina played passionately and deftly by James Lee and Valentin the Marxist Revolutionary (Frank Hansen) do create a deep connection with each other on stage that raises the emotional framework and carries the arcs of these characters to the end.
The pair are confined to a prison cell and it is their differences that while creating tension to begin with – Valentin accuses Molina of triviality for his escape into the world of a film and a particular star Aurora to which Molina responds, “We’re both trivial, but I know it and you don’t” – eventually brings them together.
The story and the evolution of these characters are particularly strong. The main characters connection to their women; for Molina his mother, played beautifully by Jennifer White and for Valentin his girlfriend, Marta played by an Amy Winehouse inspired Alexis Fishman drive the story swiftly and it rarely tires.
The challenge for this work is its staging in such a small space and the set design (David Fleischer) while intimate, simple and functional seems to work against the actors, making their ability to navigate song, text and dance all the more challenging.
It is beautifully lit (Jack Horton), sympathetically costumed (Teresa Negroponte) and the music directed by Craig Renshaw and a four-piece on stage deliver the goods as do all the actors who have fine voices and the harmonies are gorgeous. But this is a piece for an older crowd who remembers the time and love an old Kander and Ebb musical.