Good Friday, March 21 2008, I made my first visit to the new Signature Theater, above the new Shirlington Library in Arlington, Va., to see a production of "Kiss of the Spider Woman." It is based on a novel by Manuel Puig, book by Terrence McNally (Corpus Christi), lyrics by Fed Ebb, music by John Kanderm directed by Eric Schaeffer. This is based on the version that won the Tony Award for Best Musical in 1993. It had also been produced on London’s West End in 1992.
First, about the facility. It is the typical stadium seats on scaffolds with individual cushioned chairs, with an immense wide stage. On each side of the stage the prison ladders, ironworks and cages, appropriately rusty, filled your peripheral vision, for with the action in the prison cell in the center, and another stage behind for the Spider Woman fantasy. The effect was very much like that of a 3-D movie, very much a full 2.35 to 1. The new facility is much larger than an earlier one in the Four Mile Run area.
In fact, this show did become a movie in 1985, with William Hurt and Raul Julia, directed by Hector Babenco and distributed by Strand Releasing. The movie was 1.85:1.
In the story, Molina (Hunter Foster) fills out his eight year prison sentence in am Argentine prison with fantasies about the Spider Woman Aurora (Nataschia Diaz). The gay man and fashion desigber, somewhat “stereotyped” in the production, had been sentenced for involvement with a minor, in a bricks-and-mortar-world (pre-Internet) sting; he maintains (in a brief narrative in the play) that he thought the person was an adult. (Of course, the production of the musical seems “timely” now, given the controversial NBC Datelines TCAP series, but the material dates back many years, before the problem was perceived with such extreme hostility. Likewise, “Peter Grimes”, previous entry, was written at a time when there was less of a sense of public panic over these issues.) A political prisoner Valentin (Will Chase) arrives. The police want to get information about his communist activities, and in some scenes use rendition torture such as waterboarding. The two men sharing the cell are opposites, and in time Valentin grows fond of Molina. But the police decide that can “use” Molina to get even more information. An important element of Molina’s fantasies concern the movie (he mentions “Technicolor”), and the last song (of 24) is titled “Only at the Movies.” Another aspect is his desire to be reunited with his ailing Mother (Channez McQuay), which seems a bit quaint and even depressing.
This stage production places enormous demands on the actors when played almost daily, because of the "forced intimacy", and because of the physical strength and agility required in some of the prison interrogation scenes. There is an ample supporting cast of "prisoners" who do a lot of song and dance.
The music is lively, with a little bit of a Lloyd Webber feel at times (Kander, however, is American, from the Midwest). In the second act, there is a curious quote of a playful passage from the first movement of Mahler’s Fourth Symphony (G Major) and, I believe, a little Shostakovich, as if to convey the element of political operetta.