By Manning Harris
fmanningh@gmail.com

Spanish filmmaker Luis Bunuel once wrote, “Of course, fantasy and reality are equally personal, and equally felt, so their confusion is a matter of only relative importance.”  American writer Joan Didion observed, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.”  Both of these artists could be PR specialists for Actor’s Express’ new production of the musical “Kiss of the Spider Woman,” running through October 7.

This unusual comedy/drama, based on Argentine writer Manuel Puig’s novel, was made into a nonmusical film in 1985 and a Tony-winning Broadway musical in 1993, starring Chita Rivera, which I was fortunate enough to see.

You might not think that a musical play dealing with prisoners of conscience incarcerated and tortured in hidden jails would work.  Sad to say, we live in a world where such goings-on seem ever more prevalent.  Just ask Amnesty International.

Molina (Craig Waldrip), a gay window dresser imprisoned in a Latin American jail, tells himself stories in order to live, as Ms. Didion said.  He retreats into memories of his favorite movies as a survival mechanism; he’s especially inspired by the hauntingly beautiful Aurora (Liberty Cogen), the “Spider Woman,” who, while enchanting, becomes a beguiling symbol of escape—and death.  Molina is joined in his cell by a Marxist revolutionary named Valentin (Bryant Smith), who has been beaten and tortured; Molina attempts to comfort Valentin by enacting his movie fantasies for them both.  Though he is initially disgusted by Molina’s fey ways and apparent lack of political convictions, Valentin is won over by Molina’s compassion, humor, and decency, and the two become strange bedfellows, as it were.  Meanwhile, the Warden (John Benzinger) is relentless and cunning.

“Kiss of the Spider Woman” comes with impressive credentials:  a score by John Kander and Fred Ebb (“Cabaret”), a book by Terrence McNally, and original direction by Harold Prince.  The Express’ Artistic Director Freddie Ashley does the honors here, assisted by choreographer Ricardo Aponte.  Mr. Ashley does a fine job of steering a large, energetic cast and turns “Spider Woman” into an exotic, ultimately moving evening of musical theatre.

Philip Male’s set and scenic designs are masterful; Elizabeth Rasmusson’s costumes, especially for Aurora and Molina are suitably fabulous.  For some reason Act I seemed a tad long, though Patty Guenthner’s rendition of “You Could Never Shame Me,” sung to her son Molina, was a moving high point, just as it was on Broadway.  Act II, on the other hand, took off like a shot and almost seemed a different play—it was riveting.

Ultimately, the success of “Spider Woman” rest on the shoulders of Molina, Valentin, and Aurora; and here we are not disappointed.  For this viewer, the performance of the evening was Mr. Waldrip’s Molina—subtle, moving, funny, heroic—he hits all the right notes, and in addition is a fine singer.  Mr. Smith’s Valentin is a singer of almost operatic power; he seems a tad robust for a prisoner, but then he’s only been there a short time.  He and Mr. Waldrip are especially moving in the final scenes.

Ms. Cogen is beautiful and compelling as Aurora.  There seems a sort of unwritten Murphy’s Law that if there are mike/sound problems, they will afflict the lead player.  Not to worry; it’ll be ironed out by the time you see the show, and she, too, has a lovely voice.  In fact, one feels the entire production will get stronger and stronger–”The Day After That.”  It’s a most compelling evening of theatre.

For tickets and information, visit actorsexpress.com.

Collin Kelley

Collin Kelley has been the editor of Atlanta Intown for two decades and has been a journalist and freelance writer for 35 years. He’s also an award-winning poet and novelist.

4 replies on “Theatre Review: ‘Kiss of the Spider Woman’ at Actor’s Express”

  1. An accurate and well written review! Like the reviewer, I too saw the original cast in 1993 and this production brought back some fond memories. I wish Actor’s Express would sometimes remember that they are a small theatre and lavish production numbers with bold choregraphy don’t necessarily play well when they are performed in your lap. Sometimes less is more. That said, this production is worth seeing for the vocal singing prowess that is on display.

    Keep the reviews coming, they are a pleasure to read!

  2. I thoroughly enjoyed seeing my first live performance of this play. The leads are all equally engaging and talented which helps to balance and forgive some of the other weaker elements. I found the prison staff a tad unbelievable and some of the dance numbers too overwhelming in such a tight space. The character of mama stands out for her singing, warmth and sincerity.

    I recommend seeing “Kiss of the Spider Woman” at Actor’s Express. It’s a very entertaining production.

  3. I visted Actor’s Express a week ago with my partner for the final “preview” performance of Kiss of the Spider Woman before its opening night. I had not seen the original Broadway production in 1993 so this was a “fresh” experience for me. Mr. Harris’ review above provides a very accurate technical assessment of this Actor’s Express 25th Aniiversary season-opening production. I too was very impressed by the quality and power of the lead vocals – Molina, Valentin, and Aurora were all well cast and performed impressively. Ms. Guenthner’s delivery of “You Could Never Shame Me” was a heart-wrenching surprise in the first act. I felt Mr. Waldrip’s performance as Molina was tender and moving playing opposite of the strong and operatic voice of Mr. Smith’s character, Valentin. The set was cleverly and efficiently staged, especially for such a small theatre. Sitting on the front row, one of the inmate dancers almost spun off-stage and into the laps of me and a friend, which speaks to GP’s notes above that such large choreography could be more effective if a bit staged down in such a tight space. Overall, this is a noteworthy start to theatre season in Atlanta with obvious talent and great music. We Atlantans are truly blessed to have such a gem of a theatre as Actor’s Express. Congrats on another production well done and may the next 25 years be equally exciting!

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