Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Chicago

Kiss of the Spider Woman
Bohemian Theatre Ensemble

Nathan Carroll and Evan Tyrone Martin
Hal Prince has always liked things big—or so it seems. That was the case with his staging of the original Broadway production of Kiss of the Spider Woman some 20 years ago. For his direction of the Kander-Ebb-McNally musicalization of Manuel Puig's novel set in a Latin American prison, he used a multi-level set and some of the most outrageous costumes imaginable for the fantasy sequences featuring male dancers and the diva, Aurora, first played by Chita Rivera. Having seen that production, which toured with Rivera as well, it was hard for me to picture how it might work in one of the small black boxes at Chicago's Theater Wit. Director Peter Marston Sullivan had a picture of how it could work, though, and does it ever.

After seeing the production, it makes perfect sense. The bulk of this story is scenes between the prisoners Molina—an effeminate window-dresser convicted of a sexual offense—and Valentin—a revolutionary opposing the government—in their tiny prison cell. It's more than logical to have this play, which much of the time is a two-character piece, performed in such an intimate space. Sullivan also gives us an immersive sense of being in the prison by placing some of the action above and behind the audience. He's staged the piece in a modified alley style, with some seating along one of the far ends of the playing area, and an L-shaped catwalk above one of the two longer seating areas and the other short side of the alley. There are also two smaller platforms at the corners of the room opposite the main catwalk. Aurora—the film star of prisoner Molina's fantasies—appears from those upper level platforms and descends onto the main playing area, where the fantasy scenes are performed around the two beds of the prison cell. This brings the fantasies right into the prisoners' heads, but we never lose the sense of being in the prison in Patrick Ham's set, with transitions further aided by Diane Fairchild's lighting design.

I recall feeling that Prince's original production felt disjointed to me, that the fantasies were interruptive, but Sullivan's staging here has entirely solved that problem. In this space, seating around 100, we're so close to Molina and Valentin that our focus is never away from them, nor do we fail to share their claustrophobia.

The story, more than ever here, is Molina's. He's played by Nathan Carroll in a manner that is considerably less flamboyant than, say, the interpretation by William Hurt for which Hurt won an Oscar in the non-musical film of Puig's novel. Carroll's Molina is effeminate, to be sure, but his Molina seems more genuine and less purposely artificial, making it easier for us to see into his heart and feel his fears and loneliness. Both Carroll and his co-star Evan Tyrone Martin as Valentin read younger than the characters are typically cast, but this works by suggesting vulnerability and naiveté rather than the broken-down bitterness that might be associated with middle-aged versions of the two. Though the story is more about Molina's journey than Valentin's—Molina is the one who most changes, from apolitical to political—the two lead actors are immensely engaging. Martin believably communicates Valentin's physical pain from his torture by the guards and subtly changes as he begins to know and care about Molina. The men also sport most impressive pipes in singing the Kander and Ebb score. Another standout is Caron Buinis, touching but not maudlin as Molina's mother.

Ah, but the show isn't called Kiss of Molina, is it? What of the Spider Woman, so memorably played by Ms. Rivera and then a career-defining performance by Vanessa Williams? It's more than unfair to compare any non-Equity actress to the likes of those two. Playing Aurora, Jennifer T. Grubb is a capable singer and actress, but even in Bill Morey's gorgeous gowns, she doesn't quite achieve the mythological presence the character requires. It's fair enough to say we might have brought some of this aura ourselves to the performances of legends like Rivera and Williams, but it seems that Grubb and Sullivan might have taken more risks to make Grubb's Aurora a bit more "out there." As the warden, Scott Danielson could have been considerably more menacing and vile as well. Even so, the strengths of the performances by Carroll and Martin carry the momentum of the story and explore the characters to a depth that makes this production dramatically engrossing to a degree way above average for musical theater.

And it doesn't stint on musical theater values. The big fantasy numbers—"Where You Are," "Gimme Love," and "Good Times"—are graced with athletically macho dances by choreographer Linda Fortunato, and executed energetically and precisely by the four man dance corps. There was a deliberate and debatable choice to dress the dancers in work clothes (or maybe prison garb, either way giving them a gritty and non-fantastic look) even as Aurora is in glamorous costumes. Music director Elizabeth Doran has directed her singers in lovely interpretations of the songs, but her five-piece orchestra (of piano, percussion and three winds), adequate for the ballads, feels thin to me on the brassier numbers.

In its extreme close-up of Molina and Valentin, this production is an effective take on Kiss of the Spider Woman and makes a case for it as one of the more serious and thematically rich musicals of the late 20th century. Its gay themes, though created 36 years ago in the novel, remain relevant. Molina is an out, proud and completely self-aware gay man (though the fact that the objects of his affection as shown here are straight men will be disappointing to some) facing persecution because of his orientation. And, though one hopes the sort of persecution that brought him to prison would not occur in the U.S., it apparently still is practiced regularly in other countries. Even more disturbing, though, is the way in which Spider Woman's guards sap the humanity of their detainees by whatever means necessary—homophobic taunts for Molina, physical torture for Valentin. The practice of politically based imprisonment and torture has hardly left us in the years since Puig's novel was published.

Kiss of the Spider Woman will play through June 30, 2013, at Theatre Wit, 1229 W. Belmont, Chicago. Tickets are available online at or at the Theatre Wit Box Office, 773-975-8150.

Photo: Peter Coombs

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