- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 28, 2001

When the Oscar-winning Italian film "Life Is Beautiful" came out a few years ago, some said it made light of concentration camp horrors during World War II.
Others said it attempted to show, perhaps more clearly than ever before, how people create alternate, happier realities in which to take refuge when faced with grim challenges.
In "Life is Beautiful," a father gives his son the bright illusion that their imprisonment at a concentration camp is part of a hide-and-seek game.
"Kiss of the Spider Woman," a 1976 play by Argentine writer Manuel Puig, is a grown-up version of the same theme.
Two prisoners, in many ways each others opposite, bond and help each other visualize a world outside the prison walls.
The play, directed by Abel Lopez for GALA Hispanic Theatre, takes place in a prison cell occupied by Molina (Hugo Medrano), a homosexual window dresser jailed for "corrupting a minor," and Valentin (Mijail Mulkay), a political prisoner.
Feather boas, silky robes and dainty slippers — expertly created by GALAs resident costume designer, Alessandra DOvidio — cover Mr. Medranos tall frame, which is so slim that pelvic bones and collarbone poke through clothes.
While posing and walking effeminately like a model, Molina urges macho, muscular Valentin to invite love and pleasure into his life.
But Valentin, convincingly played by Cuban actor Mr. Mulkay, is preoccupied with his political movement and denounces love and worldly comforts as counterrevolutionary and as concerns of the selfish.
The set created by Elizabeth Jenkins McFadden is sparse and perfectly cell-like. Two blood-red concrete blocks that serve as the mens beds and a small area with camping cookware sit on the small stage against a wall with scribblings and red paint that climbs north in the shape of flames.
The stark difference between the characters is perhaps best and most comically illustrated by Molinas favorite pastime, painting his fingernails and toenails red, while Valentin stays fit with push-ups, sit-ups and revolutionary reading.
"Since theres nothing better in the world than a good woman. I want to be a good woman," Molina proclaims, at which both men laugh.
When Valentin teases Molina about being a bourgeois man, Molina corrects him. Hes not a bourgeois man, he says, but a bourgeois woman.
But both find common ground in storytelling, which removes them from the confines of the tiny cell.
The characters are likably complex. Molina, who, with the tender touch of a mother, cleans Valentin when the political activist soils himself after being food poisoned, is not the altruistic character he appears to be. Hes assigned to spy on Valentin for the prison warden, whos only represented by a voice over the intercom, and receives ham, biscuits, English pudding and baked apples to do so.
Also, he has sexual motives.
The self-righteous, political zealot Valentin succumbs to Molina and actually feels good about what hes done.
Mr. Medrano, who is GALAs producing-artistic director and won a Helen Hayes Award for the Molina role in 1994, is so at home in the role its difficult to picture him as anyone else. Mr. Mulkay convinces us that some people can become brainwashed and absorbed in causes.
The play contains many funny lines and situations, but some seem to get lost in the translation. While the Spanish-speaking audience laughed at regular intervals, the non-Spanish speakers had to endure buzzing headsets with a simultaneous translation that made Valentin sound as if he were straight outta Brooklyn.
But despite the headsets and uncomfortable chairs, the two-hour play goes by quickly, a sign that the production has pulled us in and held us captive, kind of like a spider woman in her web.

WHAT: "Kiss of the Spider Woman"
WHERE: GALA Hispanic Theatre, 1021 Seventh St. NW
WHEN: 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays; 4 p.m. Sundays, through May 20
TICKETS: $18 to $25
PHONE: 202/234-7174


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