The setup: This isn't Kander & Ebb's musical version of Manuel Puig's best-selling novel. There are no shirtless chorus boys gyrating around Chita Rivera in a birdcage. This is the earlier stage play adaptation of the novel, dramatized by Puig and translated into English by Allan Baker for its first performance in London in 1985. Unhinged Productions, Houston theater's prime interpreter of all things GLBT, in a provocative co-production with Talento Bilingüe de Houston, gives us a Kiss of the Spider Woman that sings anyway. It's one of UP's finest productions in many a season. We do not miss the chorus boys.
The execution: While not flawless, this production, directed with both sensitivity and flair by UP Artistic Director Joe Angel Babb and wondrously acted by Abraham Zeus Zapata and Anthony Hernandez, weaves a most affecting spell. By the end, we're thoroughly ensnared. What begins as a claustrophobic two-person prison drama between two of the most disparate types of men evolves into the most unlikely love story, one that carries hefty emotional weight and social significance.
You may remember Hector Babenco's 1985 film adaptation starring William Hurt (who won an Academy Award as Best Actor for his portrayal of flaming queen Molina) and Raul Julia (as firebrand revolutionary Valentin), but the stage version keeps us enclosed throughout within the dank Buenos Aires prison cell. The melodramatic film stories that Molina tells to keep both men's spirits up are visualized through Molina. The power of the story intensifies onstage by making Molina's fantasies spin out of thin air. We don't need to see spider woman Sonia Braga or Broadway's Chita Rivera re-create these old movies for us, Molina's imagination is ripe enough. The romance and glamor of these old weepies live fully within him.
The irony in Puig's mesmerizing tale is that apolitical gay window dresser Molina (Zapata) has lived his entire life in a dreamland, while macho Valentin (Hernandez) lives only to serve the revolution, making no room at all for imagination. The stories that Molina tells transform them both. By the end, soft Molina is hardened and stoic Valentin softened.
Why Babb shoves the prison cell (pungently detailed in set designer Dana Harrell's moist, peeling walls and painterly lighting by Zack Vierla) way over to stage left, leaving stage right virtually empty except for the hint of a hallway, is a mystery. But Babb fills the skewed view of the small acting space with a cinematic dexterity that Hitchcock would admire. He keeps the actors moving, which constantly shifts our view. At one point, Zapata sits on his shabby bed, looking out at us as he's wrapped in his colorful fringed shawl with his legs drawn up under him, while Hernandez stands behind him. The way the figures are composed, it's a classic Hollywood medium shot, and the power of the image, by itself eye-catching, only reinforces the movie fantasy Molina weaves.
The sound work could stand some more rehearsal and no doubt will be smoothed out after a few more performances, and the Spanish surtitles -- a loving nod to Teatro's audience -- certainly on opening night, had a life of their own at the beginning. But since the box is placed in the void of stage right, at least it's unobtrusive.
The Baker translation is not so smooth, at times sounding like a literal transcription of Puig's poetic Spanish instead of normal speech, but the two actors inhabit their characters with such fervor that we forgive them some bumpy passages that would trip up the most veteran of performers.
Wrapped in his shawl, or primping in the mirror attached to the bedpost, or wearing that iconic turban he fashions from a towel, Zapata's emotional Molina is swishy without apology. He may live in dreams, but he knows what he is and revels in it. In his sweat-soaked and blood-stained T-shirt, Hernandez is compact fire, at first not knowing exactly how to respond to someone so alien as this Scheherazade in drag.
As he gradually warms to Molina and his stories, he lets down his machismo and opens himself to feeling. Both characters become complete, and both actors depict this completion with a quiet force that is deeply affecting. The verdict: Politics and the personal get entwined with powerful effect in Puig's unlikely love story, while UP/TBH brings that power to emotionally thrilling theatrical life.
Spider Woman weaves its tantalizing web through June 17 at Talento Bilingüe, 333 S. Jensen Drive. Purchase tickets online at comeunhinged.com or call 713-222-1213. $18.