- The Washington Times - Friday, March 21, 2008

Director Eric Schaeffer’s vision for John Kander and Fred Ebb’s 1993 musical “Kiss of the Spider Woman” shuns Broadway glitz for a gritty, severe production that emphasizes the dehumanizing aspects of imprisonment and persecution while telling a profoundly affecting love story that develops between two men.

Based on the novel by Manuel Puig, which also was made into a 1985 movie starring Raul Julia, William Hurt and Sonia Braga, “Kiss” blends cinematic escapism with the harsh realities faced by Molina (Hunter Foster), a fey window dresser, and Valentin (Will Chase), a socialist radical, as they share a cell in an Argentine prison.

With his vivid retellings of movies starring his favorite actress, Aurora (Natascia Diaz), Molina uses his imagination to cushion the pair’s physical and psychological tortures.

The squalid conditions are brought to life by agonizing screams and the constant clanging of chains and metal objects, which beat a percussive, persistent rhythm that is anything but music to the ears.

Adam Koch’s scenic design is a gunmetal gray warren of cramped chambers where the condemned men either pace restlessly or recover from another torture session. Chris Lee’s stark, prison-bar-like lighting reinforces the horrors.

The only splash of color is a touch of lipstick red — seen in Molina’s scarf and on the mouth of Aurora, whose inky black costumes by Anne Kennedy pay tribute to the hard-boiled babes who slithered across the screen in 1940s film noir.

Aurora’s fantasy numbers, featuring Karma Camp’s clever Busby Berkeley-style choreography, are elegantly witty parodies of movie standards. In “Gimme Love,” “Her Name Is Aurora” and “Russian Movie,” the prisoners are sprung magically from their cells to become hunky chorus boys who accompany Aurora in fiery rumbas and tangos.

Aurora’s film clips give “Kiss” a dusky allure, but Mr. Schaeffer’s heavy emphasis on the relationship between Molina and Valentin and the tortured gyrations of the other male prisoners reduce the Spider Woman and the other female characters to virtual afterthoughts.

Valentin’s ardor for his love, Marta (Erin Driscoll), is expressed almost grudgingly in desultory renderings of the songs “Dear One” and “I Do Miracles.” Molina’s adoration of his mother (Channez McQuay) is likewise given short shrift emotionally.

As Molina, Mr. Foster conveys a soft, deftly pliant charm. He is especially effective when mouthing the lyrics off to the side during Aurora’s production numbers, moments when fantasy and longing unforgettably collide. He and Mr. Chase are poignant and entirely believable as the unlikely compadres who take comfort, and strength, in each other.

Unfortunately, Mr. Foster’s voice was not up to the Kander-and-Ebb score, and this weakness extended to Miss Diaz, who moved beautifully but often faltered vocally.

Mr. Chase’s impassioned Valentin had no such problems; his powerful singing voice and presence lend stirring majesty to his solo, “The Day After That.”

Mr. Schaeffer’s grim, almost masochistic take on “Kiss of the Spider Woman” makes up in broody atmosphere what it lacks in romantic fantasy.

***

WHAT:”Kiss of the Spider Woman,” music by John Kander, lyrics by Fred Ebb, book by Terrence McNally

WHERE: Signature Theatre, 4200 Campbell Ave., Arlington

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays and Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays, 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays, 7 p.m. Sundays. Through April 20.

TICKETS: $40 to $69

PHONE: 703/820-9771

WEB SITE: www.signature-theatre.org

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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