In Kiss of the Spider Woman, the haunting Kander and Ebb musical now running at the Trinity River Arts Center, two men share a tiny prison cell in Argentina. Molina (Donald Fowler) is doing three years for sex with an underage boy. The ironically named Valentin Paz (Skie Ocasio) has been locked away for espousing Marxism in a violent political faction. They are an odd couple. Effeminate Molina flaps back and forth between cots like a trapped sparrow. Macho Valentin loses patience with his cellmate and orders him not to cross a chalk line drawn down the center of the filthy floor. Of course, these two men will grow to love each other. How soon it will happen and how far it will go are two of the intrigues that keep the audience in suspense through this show's two acts and more than 20 songs.
Based on a novel by Manuel Puig that became a 1985 film that won an Oscar for William Hurt as Molina, Kiss of the Spider Woman evolved into a hit on Broadway with a book by Terrence McNally and music and lyrics by the same duo who wrote Chicago and Cabaret. McNally's work here is particularly witty, and he's woven several dark mysteries through the plot lines. Will Molina get out of prison in time to save his ailing mother? Will Valentin return to Marta, the wealthy young woman he secretly loves? Which of the prisoners will betray the other to earn freedom?
Perhaps the biggest mystery in this engrossing production is how the Uptown Players managed so successfully to stage a huge, complicated musical in their small venue. The Trinity River Arts Center is a comfortable but by no means roomy theater. But as directed by James Paul Lemons (on loan from WaterTower in Addison), with choreography by Paula Morelan and musical direction by the multitalented Scott Eckert (fresh from sell-out performances of his new play Lesson 2: Hamlet at Pocket Sandwich Theatre), this Kiss of the Spider Woman makes the walls appear to expand to sprawling Broadway dimensions. Designer Andy Redmon has worked some special alchemy on what could be a claustrophobic set, putting the four-sided cell on wheels so that it revolves and adding an upper level upstage that appears and disappears in the mist just like the show's title character. That's theater magic.
The show sounds big, too. The five-piece band (Eckert and Jeff Crouse on keyboards, Paul Dutka on reeds, Phil West on trumpet, Jay Majernik on drums) handles the difficult score with ease, soaring to the rich sound of a full orchestra. This show has lovely music, if no big breakout tunes. Kander and Ebb's score reveals a mite too strong an influence from Evita.
All the leads here give fine performances. Fowler, seen in musicals at Uptown (A New Brain), Lyric Stage (Titanic) and WaterTower (Rockin' Christmas Party), has never sung with a richer, clearer voice. As Valentin, Dallas theater newcomer Skie Ocasio is by turns menacing and vulnerable, with a voice that thrills. And then there's the Spider Woman. What a pretty, poisonous creature this character is, played with sinewy arms and piercing eyes by the smoky-voiced Linda Leonard. The character exists only in the dreams of Molina, who uses memories of his favorite diva and her old B-movies to drown out screams of tortured prisoners. Molina is convinced that a kiss from Spider Woman spells death. Whenever she appears, her dance leads to tragedy. When Leonard, wrapped in a revealing mesh dress, slithers across the prison bars like a black widow on a newly spun web, watch out. She's trouble.
Where Uptown takes a big show like Kiss of the Spider Woman and makes its smallish theater feel enormous, WaterTower Theatre in Addison loses the intimacy of a slight four-person drama, Donald Margulies' Dinner with Friends , by staging it in a space the size of an airplane hangar. This isn't a strong play to begin with, and any poignancy it contains evaporates when its few characters are made to navigate across the entire width of the theater. When the actors play their scenes on the living-room conversation level, it's also hard for the back row to hear. It's like watching people argue from a block away. You can tell they're mad, you just can't quite make out what they're mad about.
In the play two yuppie couples find their friendship disintegrating when one of the pairs divorces, making the other wonder how solid their own marriage is. Then the still-marrieds, Gabe and Karen (Terry Martin, Kerry Cole), begin to feel a touch of schadenfreude when they realize that the other couple, Tom and Beth (Steven Pounders, Shannon J. McGrann), weren't such nice folk to begin with. It's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? lite--less cussing, no Scotch, no imaginary sons.
And no sublime Edward Albee wordplay either. These characters are supposed to sound trendy and upscale because they drop a lot of references to risotto. They wax on about "the Vineyard" (as in Martha's). They speak in streams of banal, strained clichés not unlike the arguments between Elliot and Nancy, the grating, unhappy pair who were Michael and Hope's best friends on the old thirtysomething series.
Dinner with Friends tastes like leftovers.
Sometimes a director falls so in love with an idea of how a show should be done, she forgets to include the audience in the plan. With The Artificial Jungle , the Charles Ludlam comedy now winding up its run at the Bath House Cultural Center, director Christine Vela of the Our Endeavors Theater Collective has made that mistake.
The play broadly spoofs '50s film noir classics, with plot elements borrowed from The Postman Always Rings Twice and Double Indemnity. Sexy wife, nebbish husband, mysterious drifter, hysterical mother-in-law, nosy cop--good character roles all. Wife wants drifter to dust husband so she'll collect insurance loot. In The Artificial Jungle, the couple, Roxanne (Lainie Simonton) and Chester Nurdiger (Andy Long), run a spooky pet shop where a huge tank of piranhas figures heavily in the action. Meddling Mama is played by a plus-sized man (Patrick Johnson) wearing yards of polka dots and an acre of apron.
For the first 10 minutes, it's all pretty funny. Simonton is an actress built with so many sharp angles you'd need a protractor to get her measurements. She strikes comically vampy, exaggerated poses and spits out dialogue as if each word were soaked overnight in paregoric. As the husband, Long, mushy as an unbaked loaf, speaks with a high-pitched, Jerry Lewis whine. David Goodwin, playing drifter Zachary Crane, pouts and sweats provocatively.
If they all weren't working so hard at hitting the right spots in their overdirected blocking, the audience could sit back and enjoy it. But director Vela, by choreographing every sentence, every gesture, every inhale and exhale in this odd production, makes it a chore to watch. She uses actors like marionettes, posing and positioning them this way and that and then imposing a wooden acting style seen previously only in Ed Wood movies. A little bad-on-purpose emoting is fine. Too much of it triggers cluster headaches.
It's not a great evening of theater, but The Artificial Jungle does contain one of the best lines ever uttered on a Dallas stage. Says Roxanne to Zachary, "I didn't get these lips from suckin' doorknobs.'' Curtain!
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