Kiss of the Spider Woman

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Tuesday September 4, 2018

Eddy Cavazos and Taavon Gamble in 'Kiss of the Spider Woman,' continuing through October 7 at the Lyric Stage Company of Boston
Eddy Cavazos and Taavon Gamble in 'Kiss of the Spider Woman,' continuing through October 7 at the Lyric Stage Company of Boston  (Source:Provided)

The musical adaptation of Manuel Puig's novel "Kiss of the Spider Woman" is a tale of many webs. Political and legal nets designed to entrap and entangle land Molina (Eddy Cavazos), a gay man, and Velentin (Taavon Gamble), a political revolutionary, in an Argentine prison; once there, the two men - an odd couple if ever there was one - navigate still more webs of intrigue that have been laid out by the prison's sadistic Warden (Luis Negron).

But perhaps the most dangerous, if enticing, web of all is that spun by Molina, a silky lattice of gossamer fantasy composed of his memories of Hollywood movies and a dreamlike, dread-infused apparition of a 1940s starlet named Aurora (now envisioned as a glamorous embodiment of death) that haunts his imagination. This Spider Woman (Lisa Yuen) needs only kiss a man to seal his death - at least, that was what she did in the movies. Now, as a singing, dancing, fatally alluring mixture of celluloid recollection and coping-mechanism hallucination, the Spider Woman stands guard over the gates of oblivion, a classic combination of eros and death.

Though gay, Molina is hardly immune to the Spider Woman's glossy, sensual wiles. She's a siren whose call plucks at every heart on the spectrum of human desire. But the femme fatale has a counterweight in the form of Molina's elderly, ailing mother (Johanna Carlisle-Zepeda); if memories of Aurora drive Molina's darker, more diverting fantasies, it's Mother who sustains him with hope and braces him with a sense that life, however tenuous, is still worth preserving.

It's that flicker of optimism that allows Molina to survive in the prison despite the constant threat of viciously homophobic guards, and it's his flair - even, shall we say, his flamboyance - that insulates him from despair and bitterness. The hard-headed Valentin, one senses, is perfectly willing to be a martyr to his cause, but even his single-mindedness slowly opens up as he and Molina spend time together in their cell. Before long, Valentin is "hooked," as Molina gleefully notes, on Molina's recitations of old movies. Food parcels from Molina's mother help lift the mood, too.

Only... those parcels aren't from Molina's mother. The Warden is looking to use Molina as a means to pry names and other information from Valentin concerning his contacts in the resistance, primarily the identity of his girlfriend, Marta (Katrina Sofia) - "the key," the Warden believes, to the underground network as a whole.

That network, in turn, proves to be a sticky proposition when Valentin is maneuvered into an attempt to recruit Molina as a go-between who can smuggle a message to Marta. But will Marta prove to be the central figure - the spider woman, of sorts - at the heart of still another web? Or are the Warden's speculations nothing more than the paranoiac ravings of fascistic derangement?

Lisa Yuen in 'Kiss of the Spider Woman,' continuing through October 7 at the Lyric Stage Company of Boston
Lisa Yuen in 'Kiss of the Spider Woman,' continuing through October 7 at the Lyric Stage Company of Boston  (Source: Provided)

The musical's book, by Terrence McNally, lifts the Spider Woman from the realm of metaphor and places her in a narrative place of pride; the songs, by John Kander and Fred Ebb, lend her both classically cinematic mystique and mythic gravitas. Molina and Valentin might sing about their feelings - shame, longing - and their fellow inmates yearn to rejoin the life that's going on "over the wall" that hems into the prison, but it's the Spider Woman that gets most of the big, sexy numbers. She's an escape route for those who can bear no more under a repressive regime, but could she also be the smiling face of the collective human flaw that causes societies to embrace, time after time, their own destruction?

Puig wrote his novel in exile, having fled Argentina and taken up residence in Mexico before the military government came into power in his homeland. Puig then adapted his novel to the stage himself, in what was to prove a forerunner to the powerful 1985 film version. Kander and Ebb brought the musical to London's West End in 1992 and then to Broadway the following year, where it won seven Tonys. But for American audiences, the play might only now be attaining something that feels like urgency; as director Rachel Bertone says in her program notes, "The tough questions that the play raises ultimately ask us if we will be bystanders in the face of injustice or UPstanders."

Such social justice (and antifascist) underpinnings are baked into the play's DNA, but they don't overwhelm this production. McNally's book gains loft from Molina's irrepressible humor, while Berton's choreography fills the Lyric's performance space with dance numbers that feel cut along classical stage musical lines. The singing isn't always what it might be, though it's delivered with heart, but Yuen captures the spotlight and gives the show a reason to be titled after her character.

The design work here is riveting. Janie E. Howland surrounds the prison cell with weblike latices of wire fencing and ironwork that lean in with brutal psychological oppression. Franklin Meissner, Jr.'s lighting literally casts a pall over the scene, with slats of light that fall across the set with noirish moodiness. Marian Bertone's costumes feel like a mix and match of repressive regimes, with hints of Castro's Cuba and Franco's Spain. Jonathan Carr creates projections that bring the play's cinematic references to life, and lend the production its own filmic qualities.

Fascistic regimes have a way of taking fact and reality and coating them with rhetorical grease, such that the objective world starts to feel slippery. That, too, comes across here. There's a same-sex jailhouse romance between Molina and Valentin that one would like to read as being revelatory for the characters; still, there's a nagging, and provocative, question mark. Does Molina fall in love with Valentin, or has he fallen in love with the idea of inhabiting a real-life equivalent of one of the old movies he adores? Has Valentin moved beyond his machismo-driven distaste for gay men and spent a night of passion with Molina because he's developed genuine feelings for his cellmate, or is this consummation carried out because of the calculations Valentin's done in terms of using Molina for his own ends? The play, like its source material, is open to allow for both possibilities - or, better yet, an evenhanded mixture of motives and desires.

"Kiss of the Spider Woman" continues through October 7 at the Lyric Stage Company of Boston. For tickets and more information please go to

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.