What do you do when life is unbearable? Fight? Try to escape into a fantasy world where everything is beautiful? Kiss of the Spider Woman, Off the Wall Theatre’s latest show, musically ponders the tension between fantasy and reality, weighing swagger against swish, courage against cowardice, and coming to a surprising take on the meaning of freedom—and what it means to be a man.
Set in a prison in an unnamed Latin-American police state during a brutal crackdown on a Marxist insurgency, the play begins when Valentin, a freedom fighter with a hardscrabble past, is tossed into a cell with Molina, an extremely gay window dresser framed for soliciting a minor in a public restroom. Molina survives the squalor and cruelty by retreating into a glamorous world of old movies, all starring his favorite star, an actress named Aurora; his Madonna of sorts—except for the eponymous Spider Woman, from the only film that frightened Molina as a child. As Molina shares his fantasies with Valentin, scenes from the movies play out in their minds, the cell walls melt away and the border between dream and reality blurs in highly theatrical ways. The inmates and prison accouterments magically transform into Aurora’s fabulous world.
The Broadway version was crammed with lavish production numbers; far more limited in space and resources, director Dale Gutzman creates a peep-show hallucination; a phantasmagorical spectacle of pure theater. The male chorus, clad in artfully-torn street clothes, clambers over and around the claustrophobic multi-level set, woebegone faces and grimy bodies shining in the gloom in nightmarish moving tableaus deliberately recalling the dream-paintings of Goya. Musical numbers are feverish and desperate, set against the guards’ callousness; a richly-textured universe created out of a few boards and swatches of fabric.
The musical premiered in the 90s, when the gay rights movement was pulling itself out of the AIDS crisis and building momentum, and in many ways it’s a perfect expression of late 20th century gay fantasy: powerless, abject, in a rough macho environment, a young straight man reflexively hates, and gradually comes to need, a homosexual man. It’s also a tribute to the power of imagination, art, old movies, and by extension musical theater, which can enable escapism and denial, but can also be a strategy for survival, even redemption (it’s no accident that Christian imagery features prominently in the set design). The show owes its thematic richness to a novel by Argentinian author Manuel Puig; it was adapted first into a movie and then a musical. The score and lyrics are standard Broadway fare, with a little boom-chicka-boom added for Latin flavor, but there are a few crisply-layered trios and quartets that give the singers a chance to show their chops.
OTW veteran Karl Miller gives an absolutely credible performance as a fussy, world-weary Molina, showing us a man whose “feminine” weakness becomes the root of moral courage, based on love. In the less-interesting role of the macho Valentin, Jeremy Welter works with what he has; delivering the admirable sentiments of the otherwise rather silly anthem, “The Day After That,” Welter rises to the occasion, proving that he can belt it out when duty calls.
The true gem of the show is the remarkable Liz Norton in the role of Aurora: with her striking face and extraordinary voice, she brings every inch of the needed grandeur and passion to the part, while simultaneously letting us know that she’s fully aware how much she’s camping it up—and loving it. With eyes blazing behind her Spider Woman mask, she could be Kali, the Hindu goddess of death herself. Worth the price of the show alone. Marilyn White gives an authentic, moving performance as Molina’s mother; talented dancer Parker Cristan provides some flashy moves (you wish he had more space to really cut loose). Music director Anne Van Deusen works miracles with a tiny unseen orchestra, making a sound much bigger than you’d expect.
Fantasy can give us both visions and nightmares; it can blind us to hard truths, but also offer a balm for them, even help us bring out the best in ourselves. In Kiss of the Spider Woman, Off the Wall Theatre returns to the low-budget, over-the-top spectacles we’ve come to treasure, while offering its own justification: simply put, art can save us. By highlighting religious imagery, Gutzman seems to offer an interesting thought: is religion best understood as a work of art?
Kiss of the Spider Woman
Off the Wall Theatre
May 22 through 26
Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday: 7:30pm
Tickets: reserved, $28.50, genera,l $25.50
(414) 484-8874 or www.offthewalltheatre.com