KISS OF THE SPIDER WOMAN
Before he turned to novels in the early 1960s, Argentinean writer Manuel Puig apprenticed as an assistant director and screenwriter in the Italian movie industry, and a cinematic sensibility deeply informs his fiction–particularly Kiss of the Spider Woman, his brilliant 1976 novel about social and sexual oppression and liberation. Like the movies whose magic attracted Puig, this is very much a story told in the dark–the dank dark of a prison cell in which two men, outlaws in Argentina in the 1970s, have been cast together with the seeming randomness that often masks the hand of fate.
Puig’s stage adaptation of his novel–far more than the elaborate and showy screen version that won William Hurt an Oscar–captures the novel’s fascinating intimacy, its sense that life is both a jail and a movie theater in which the mind wanders free under cover of darkness. “Funny thing, imagination,” says the political prisoner Valentin in the novel; and though the line is cut from the play, that deceptively casual remark defines the sense of wonder and mystery that permeates this story of love and friendship blossoming in the hidden gutters.
Valentin, a Marxist rebel fighting an underground war against Argentina’s right-wing military regime, has been confined to a cell occupied by Molina, a gay “pervert” imprisoned for “corruption of minors.” The two men could not seem more opposite (especially in the eyes of the sexually rigid Catholic culture in which the story is set). Valentin is “all man,” a husky, macho, 26-year-old freedom fighter who has tried to train himself not to show emotion or affection and not to need women too much. Molina, an effeminate window dresser who claims to be 37 but is probably lying, sees himself as a “bourgeois lady,” looking for a stable life with a good man. Both men deceive themselves–Valentin, despite his ideology, is hung up on his sexy but conservative girlfriend, while Molina’s dreams of landing Mr. Right are belied by a reality of quick tricks and drag-queen bitchery. While Valentin reads revolutionary theory and plans to change the world–knowing that the struggle will probably never end–Molina skims fashion magazines and retreats into an inner world of fantasy, in which he can forget about the restrictions of prison as he has always been able to forget the sadness of his life on the outside.
Molina has assumed a motherly, nurturing role in the relationship: he keeps the dingy cell neat, makes sure the water is fresh, tends to Valentin when he is ill, and insistently shares with him the rather expensive care packages his mother brings him when she comes to visit. But Molina is actually playing a dangerous game–one that he has been groomed for since boyhood in a society where homosexuals learn deceit as an essential means of self-protection. Hoping for a pardon, Molina has agreed to try to pry loose information from Valentin about his fellow guerrillas.
To keep conversation going and spirits up, Molina entertains Valentin with an ongoing story: a detailed recounting of Cat People, a 1942 horror movie about a woman who turns into a panther when aroused by desire or jealousy. While Molina, the “spider woman,” spins his web of fantasy and dwells on the old fright flick’s haunting imagery, Valentin responds with interest to the narrative subtext, which he analyzes as an allegory of frigidity and sexual violence and the mutual exploitation of the sexes in a bourgeois culture. (Of necessity, Puig’s play eliminates his book’s extensive footnote references to the work of Freud, Marcuse, Norman O. Brown, and other social and sexual theorists.) The two men’s bantering about the movie (like the discourses on drama in Plato’s works) leads to almost Socratic dialogue about the nature of men and women, the mythology of homosexuality and its causes, the links between psychological and political repression, and the value of personal honor–even when one is defending a lost but just cause. Inevitably, the friendship blossoms into a kind of romance as well as a mutual teacher-pupil relationship; inevitably, Molina confronts his own cat-woman-like double nature and makes a life-changing choice.
That the choice proves materially disastrous at the play’s unsettling climax might lead one to ask if the changes Valentin and Molina work on each other’s hearts and minds make any difference. In Puig’s eyes they obviously do; and in Eric Simonson’s quiet but riveting staging of the drama for Pegasus Players, they do in the audience’s eyes, too.
Virtually every detail of Simonson’s production is perfect: the decaying stone walls and claustrophobic layout of Walter Martishius’s set (though it’s placed a bit too far downstage to be clearly seen from the side seats in Pegasus’s sprawling auditorium); the exquisite taped music (guitarist-composer Peter Aglinskas has served up a lovely response to the thematic material of Enrique Granados’s “Spanish Dance No. 5”; Frank Abbinanti, a specialist in Latin American political music, is credited as a consultant); Peter Gottlieb’s lighting, which makes fine use of natural light sources such as candles and a small kerosene stove while reminding us of each man’s individual isolation with spotlighting; Jeff Webb’s sound design and Jeffrey Kelly’s costumes; and, above all, the understated eloquence of Harry J. Lennix and Larry Yando as Valentin and Molina. Lennix, recalling the young Black Panther leader (now alderman) Bobby Rush with his mix of militance and intellectualism, is moving and honest as an intensely controlled man wrestling with guilt, shame, and erotic ambivalence; Yando is perfect as the prissy queen whose flamboyance masks inner hurt. The passive body language Yando’s Molina exhibits in the beginning of the play, and his newfound energy after the sexual encounter he hoped for, are unforgettably etched.
I happened to see Spider Woman at a Sunday matinee; in the audience was a group of teenagers, participants in Pegasus’s youth outreach program. Not surprisingly, the kids giggled at Molina’s effeminate behavior, and laughed outright in startled embarrassment at the gently played, dimly lit sex scene at the middle of act two. But by the end, when Molina and Valentin exchange a loving farewell kiss, the kids weren’t laughing; confronted with unusual and threatening subject matter, they were won over by the simplicity and humanity of Puig’s play and Lennix and Yando’s acting. That is the best praise I can think of for this fine piece of theater.
In an interesting piece of timing, Spider Woman opened the same week that Argentinean president Carlos Saul Menem extended amnesty to more than 100 people accused of human-rights violations during the “dirty war” of the 1970s–leftist terrorists and right-wing torturers alike. But the struggle that Puig depicted–the struggle not only against overt political oppression but against the subversion of human dignity even in “free” societies–goes on. Ironically, in conjunction with this play about the links between sexual and political oppression, Pegasus is distributing leaflets for Amnesty International–an organization that works (in its own words) “specifically for the release of prisoners of conscience . . . imprisoned for their beliefs, color, sex, ethnic origin, language, or religion.” Notably absent from this list is “sexual orientation,” despite the fact that sexual minorities are routinely subject to persecution, prosecution, torture (under the guise of “treatment”–including castration and brainwashing techniques), and even execution in countries the world over. A Chicago spokesperson for Amnesty International apologetically explained to me that “debates over shifts within the mandate” concerning this “not necessarily popular” issue are “always ongoing”; meanwhile, Amnesty International declines to recognize the right to love as a matter of conscience.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jennifer Girard.