Spider Woman weaves deadly web of intrigue

Based on a novel by Manuel Puig, with music and lyrics by John Kander and Fred Ebb, Kiss of the Spider Woman is the story of two cellmates in a Spanish jail. It is currently being performed at the Boston Center for the Arts (BCA).,Kiss of the Spider Woman is a delicate, beautiful and dangerous web. It draws you in and traps you, unwilling to release its prey.

Based on a novel by Manuel Puig, with music and lyrics by John Kander and Fred Ebb, Kiss of the Spider Woman is the story of two cellmates in a Spanish jail. It is currently being performed at the Boston Center for the Arts (BCA). The play tells the tale of Molina (John King), a homosexual window dresser jailed for molesting a minor, and Valentin (Brendan McNab), a political activist under arrest for helping revolutionaries. Molina is flamboyant and feminine, whereas Valentin is stoic and reserved. Since they are complete opposites, they clash immediately, resulting in Valentin drawing a line down the middle of the cell and forbidding Molina to cross it.

The rift with his cellmate leaves Molina with plenty of time to think. Since childhood, Molina has been fascinated with the cinema and is a devoted fan of one movie star in particular, Aurora (Christine A. Maglione). He has seen every film that she has been in and can recite the details of each from memory. This escapism is how he survives the conditions of the prison, which are cruel and degrading. The guards openly taunt the two men, physically and mentally abusing them.

As Molina tells Valentin, he loves every one of Aurora’s movies except one in which she played a spider woman who could kill people with her kiss. He begins describing her movies to Valentin, and Aurora enters the stage, performing alongside his narration. Aurora is swept through scenes of love, adventure and peril.

Originally played on Broadway by Chita Rivera and then taken over by Vanessa Williams, the role of Aurora is strenuous and demanding, and Maglione rises to the challenge brilliantly. Draped in sparkling costumes and accompanied by a quartet of young men, she sings and dances her way through routines reminiscent of shows from long ago. She also climbs the cages onstage, hanging from them and beckoning men to kiss her. As Aurora, Maglione is a lethal seductress and she loves every minute of it.

Through the process of describing Aurora, the two men develop a bond between them, which deepens and grows, resulting in a substantial sacrifice and the question of what really makes a happy ending.

The musical also reveals the brutal abuse that the prisoners underwent. Convinced that Valentin has information about other revolutionaries, the Warden (maliciously played by Sean McGuirk) enlists Molina to get information from his cellmate, promising the reward of freedom if he cooperates. The show also highlights the poisoned food the prisoners are served and the cruelty they must endure.

The staging of the show enhances its power greatly. Kiss is filled with symbolism, using props to represent the emotions being portrayed. The intimacy of the Calderwood Pavilion at the BCA allows the entire room to be used. Large walls are constructed onstage, imprisoning the men and allowing the Spider Woman to climb and hang above them. Scenes of brutality take place behind these walls, and the men struggle to break free while singing the refrains of “Over the Wall.” The acting is not confined to the stage: the cast walks through the center aisle in the audience and many scenes take place on balconies, featuring characters from outside the jail.

With its candid approach to violence and injustice, the content of Kiss of the Spider Woman makes it an unusual choice for a musical. The show stages the physical and mental brutality of the prison, juxtaposed with flashy song and dance numbers performed by Aurora and her boys. While the distraction is welcome, the disconnection between the two feels uncomfortable at times. Despite the upbeat songs and fast-paced dances, Kiss of the Spider Woman is not a happy musical.

The sheer talent of the cast and crew, however, and the true emotion behind the performances, make it easy to be drawn into the Spider Woman’s web. And once in, it is difficult to leave.

Kiss of the Spider Woman will be performed on Wednesdays through Sundays at the Boston Center for the Arts (BCA), 539 Tremont St., until Dec. 3. Wednesday and Thursday shows are at 7:30 p.m.; Friday shows are at 8 p.m.; Saturday shows are at 4 p.m. and 8 p.m.; Sunday shows are at 3 p.m. (with an additional show on Nov. 27 at 7 p.m.). Tickets are $39 to $48; however, student rush tickets are available for $10 (cash only) at the BCA box office one hour before showtime.