Manuel Puig's novel Kiss of the Spider Woman tells a haunting love story, the kind that can happen only under the most wretched of circumstances. Terrence McNally, along with John Kander and Fred Ebb, has turned this dark tale about two men who meet in a Latin American prison into an unlikely though mesmerizing musical, Kiss of the Spider Woman, playing at Masquerade Theatre.
As the lights come up, Molina (L. Jay Meyer), a 37-year-old gay window dresser has been locked up as a "sexual offender." Thrown into Molina's cell is Valentin (Pablo Bracho), a beautiful Latino freedom fighter, who's been tortured senseless.
Valentin is brave and full of machismo. He'll do almost anything, even endure the most horrific violence, in the name of his cause. He can't, however, stand being jailed with Molina. All the window dresser's stories and jokes enrage Valentin. When a tortured man with a bag over his head is dragged into the cell for Valentin to identify, Molina quips, "If I looked like her, I'd wear a bag over my head, too."
Valentin demands that Molina take himself more "seriously." Of course, that's exactly Valentin's problem: He takes himself too seriously. Full of schoolboy rage, he declares that Molina must stay on the other side of the cell. "I draw the line," he sings, as he demonstrates exactly where his side is.
Molina, on the other hand, loves the company. He window dresses the tiny cell with scraps of lace and brocade the guards have given him for good behavior. He hangs an image of his favorite B-movie star, the black-haired, red-lipped Aurora (Gina Nespoli-Holmes). And he begins to tell her stories.
Slowly Valentin softens. He even starts to want more stories, joking, "You don't get this sort of thing in Dialectical Materialism." And Molina nurses Valentin through his jailhouse mistreatment.
The warden (Todd Porter) wants Valentin's secrets, and the fighter's most precious secret is the identity of his lover, who is ironically a golf-playing socialite. Molina eventually sacrifices everything to protect Valentin and his secret. His is the kind of love most of us can only hope to have.
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This is a powerful story full of ironic twists, with a smartly foreshadowed ending. And Masquerade's production, under the direction of Jim Williams, is handsome, if slow at times.
Amy Ross's stark set wrapped in burlap and green wool is a grim backdrop for Molina's flamboyant imagination. Nespoli-Holmes's Aurora is alluring and dangerous, and she beautifully sings her role, full of low, deep-throated notes. Meyer also does well by the lovely music, though his Molina is somewhat subdued. And Bracho is physically perfect for the role of Valentin, the beautiful, headstrong heartbreaker, even if the music is sometimes a stretch for his voice.
Kiss of the Spider Woman is a rich tale about the power love and imagination have to overcome the worst kind of indignities. Molina teaches us how to live with integrity.
Kiss of the Spider Woman runs through June 5 at Masquerade Theatre, 1537 North Shepherd, (713)861-7071. $12-$20.