Kiss Me Like You Did the First Time
Puig’s play a triumph for Trial by Fire TheatreWorks
by Rick Levin
|Chip Sherman (left) and Benjamin Newman. Photo by Jon Christopher Meyers.|
Every once in a while, and not nearly as often as one would like, a play comes along that is so finely wrought, so perfectly pitched and exquisitely nuanced, that it pries open the top of your skull and zaps the inertial circuitry of your thinking, making a wonderful mess of your most valued notions, and in the most pleasant and invigorating way imaginable. Acting, writing, directing, sets, music — by some alchemic combination of talent and timing and plain good luck, everything about the production seems to work, and you find yourself, quite unexpectedly, squirming in your seat before the thing is even half over, desperately wanting to cheer, or applaud, or lean over and hyperventilate inspired insights into the ear of the poor person sitting beside you. In short, the play blows you away.
Such was my humble, and humbled, response to Trial by Fire TheatreWork’s current production of Kiss of the Spiderwoman, adapted from the 1976 novel of the same name by Argentine author Manuel Puig. And, if you’ll allow me one more personal indulgence, I’d like to add that my reaction was both heightened and sweetened by the fact that this is Trial by Fire’s inaugural work — their big hello to Eugene’s theater community — and that, furthermore, the work chosen is one with which I am well acquainted, thanks to repeated viewings of the 1985 film adaptation starring William Hurt and Raul Julia. Or, let me restate that: Heading to see the play, I so believed I had Kiss of the Spider Woman wrapped around my brain and figured out that I actually was dreading the idea of sitting through it one more time. Silly me.
Adapted by Puig and translated by Allan Baker, the play is an exercise in minimalism on a par with Waiting for Godot, though in its political and existential implications Kiss of the Spider Woman couldn’t be further removed from Samuel Beckett’s tight-lipped and despairing park-bench nihilism. The story focuses almost exclusively on the relationship of two prisoners forced, it would seem, to share the same cell, and who are put away for what appears wildly different reasons: Molina (played superbly by Benjamin Newman), a flamboyantly homosexual window dresser, has been imprisoned for public indecency, while Valentin (the equally great Chip Sherman) is a hard-line Marxist locked up for plotting to overthrow the government (exactly what government is never clear and, really, doesn’t matter — it could be any government at any time). To pass the time and entertain them both, Molina recounts the plots of several black-and-white films, including Jacques Tournier’s masterpiece Cat People, though Molina takes so many delicious liberties that his ongoing narrative morphs into several fantastic subplots, each more romantic and escapist than the one before. Or so, once again, it would seem.
The intensity and tragic beauty of the play derives solely from the transformation that takes place, and the almost transcendent love that develops, between these two men: Valentin, who is the quintessence of the self-abnegating revolutionary, protects himself against Molina’s charms with a hard-earned and sometimes violent asceticism that will brook no sentimentality, which the political prisoner calls a “vice” that only weakens the “cause” of revolution. And for his part, Molina — a sad, aging queen who despairs of every falling in love with a “real man” — gently and with cunning subtlety erodes Valentin’s Marxist (and at the same time rather bourgeois) armor with loving gestures and his sequined stories of star-crossed lovers and noir-ish intrigue. But enough. To tell more would be to ruin the play’s delicate and ensnaring spider’s web of truth and fiction, and to reveal one too many femme fatales.
The producers’ note for Kiss points out the play’s timeliness, and goodness knows we are long overdue in sending the mythico-Christian bigotry against gay marriage into the same ash can of history where now resides such bullshit as Jim Crow and male-only suffrage. But to pin this down as a distinctly gay play would be a mistake. In its delicate balancing act of issues regarding gender, politics and art, Kiss certainly has much to say about our current and ongoing state of affairs. But it also transcends them by speaking to the universality of the human condition — the complicated, messy, yin/yang sadness and entrapment of our shared humanity. Director B. Michael Peterson and his crew and cast (which also includes Ryan Olsen, who plays the prison’s warden and also provides off-stage guitar accompaniment) approach Puig’s play with a level of sophistication that at once confounds categorization while ultimately elevating the work above any such considerations. This is a Kiss that is at once stinging and sweet, and the poison it leaves will linger in your blood long after you leave the theater.