Web of Intrigue

Borderlands Theater warmly embraces 'Kiss of the Spider Woman.'

The lights come up on a filthy cell; a man in a bloody shirt leans against the door's bars, waiting. Blackout. The lights come up to reveal another prisoner sitting on his hard bed, rocking back and forth, watching the first man sleep. Blackout.

So time passes between scenes in Manuel Puig's Kiss of the Spider Woman, presented by Borderlands Theater in a compelling production largely imported from Portland's Miracle Theater Group. But to say that time passes is wrong; time slumps inertly over these men, bleeding memories.

Molina is a homosexual sentenced to this Argentine prison for dalliance with a minor; he spends his hours pining for his ailing mother, and trying to work his way first into the consciousness and then into the heart of his cellmate, the political prisoner Valentín Paz. This is an ironic name, considering that the Marxist activist has tried to forswear sentimental attachments in order to steel himself for his group's "actions," which, it is implied, involve violence. Yet Valentín is an uneasy revolutionary; he fervently believes in his cause, but he is more a thinker than a fighter, studying political theory from a tattered book and parsing the psychosocial motivations of every emotion he encounters.

Valentín is intellect, Molina is emotion, and both are alienated from whatever world they know, whether Argentine society or their few, squalid square feet of prison space. Perhaps they needn't be alienated from each other, though. Kiss of the Spider Woman documents their détente and gradual conciliation, despite suspect motives and mutual incomprehension.

Molina distracts Valentín by recounting, in baroque detail, the plot of an old B movie rather like Jacques Tourneur's Cat People, revolving around a glamorous, mysterious "panther woman" whose nature deprives her of lasting love.

Meanwhile, Valentín longs for his own unreachable girlfriend--not the "official" one in his political group, but his secret love, a member of the very class he has attempted to overthrow.

For Molina, true love is a difficult proposition; he wants to be a woman, like the actresses in his beloved old movies, who live happily ever after with a "real man." Unfortunately for Molina, real men prefer real women.

Valentín is a real man, a literally captive audience for Molina's fantasies, cinematic and otherwise. Interestingly, Valentín rejects not necessarily Molina's homosexuality, but his idea that to take the part of a woman means subordinating himself to someone else.

The play traces how the two men come to terms with each other and their own natures, and darkens the outline not just with dialogue but through telling, silent moments, most remarkably when Molina washes the ailing, Christlike Valentín's back.

Kiss of the Spider Woman originated as a 1976 novel, then metamorphosed into a two-character play, a film and a Broadway musical. Of the adaptations, the modest stage play is the most intense and human, especially in this Borderlands version. Andres Alcalá as Molina and Rafael Untalán as Valentín spend the entire evening on stage, from the time the audience begins trickling into the theater, through intermission, to the final curtain call. They remain trapped in John Longhoffer's excellent, claustrophobic set, as confined (and emotionally exposed) as their characters.

Alcalá is a superb Molina, a queen who finds dignity rather than camp in these worst of circumstances. Alcalá achieves one great continuum of character, making it seem only natural that a person capable of such imagination and resourcefulness in the face of government oppression and manipulation should occasionally break into tears at a personal slight.

Valentín takes a longer personal journey than Molina, from stoic political prisoner to something far more deeply and complexly human, and Untalán marks that journey in steps rather than milestones. His transformation is gradual, controlled and seemingly inevitable.

Aside from a tendency to have the actors fuss with their bedding a bit too much, director Stan Foote has shaped the action in perfect little waves of intensity, each a bit higher than the last, each crashing on us just a bit harder. He's helped immeasurably by John Dahlstrand's lighting design, which creates at least three separate emotional environments that contend with each other through the course of each scene.

Although its scale is small, Borderlands' Kiss of the Spider Woman will stand as one of this season's most memorable productions. This is a terrific show, but bear in mind that "terrific" is derived from the same root word as "terror."

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