Kiss of the Spider Woman musical is dark, disturbingly timely

Torture, oppression, homophobia and revolution are not typically the makings of musical theatre. But John Kander and Fred Ebb found success with that dark material in Kiss of the Spider Woman, which gets a solid production from Winnipeg's Dry Cold.

Tony Award-winning musical uses story of inmates in Argentine prison to explore courage, conviction

Reid McTavish is Molina and Matthew Fletcher plays Valentin in Kiss of the Spider Woman, a story of finding courage and conviction as the unlikely pair bond in an Argentine prison. (Gary Barringer/Dry Cold Productions)

Torture, oppression, homophobia and revolution — these are not typically the makings of musical theatre.

But the famed duo of John Kander and Fred Ebb — the team behind Cabaret and Chicago — found success with that dark material in their Tony Award-winning 1993 musical Kiss of the Spider Woman.

More than 25 years after its Broadway debut, Winnipeg theatre company Dry Cold embraces its dark elements — and reminds us that it's still disturbingly timely.

The book by Terrence McNally is based on a novel by Argentine writer Manuel Puig, as was the Oscar-winning 1985 film of the same name.

It's set during Argentina's mid-1970s Dirty War, when thousands of people deemed enemies of the military dictatorship disappeared. In an Argentine prison, a disparate pair of the disappeared become cellmates.

Molina (Reid McTavish) is a gay man who has been arrested after being entrapped, and Valentin (Matthew Fletcher) is a leftist revolutionary.

At first, Valentin wants nothing to do with his cellmate — a flamboyant department store window-dresser who escapes the hellish realties of the prison by recalling the plots of movies starring his favourite actress, Aurora (Rochelle Kives), who appears to him in fantasies. 

Dry Cold's production embraces the musical's dark elements and reminds us that it's still disturbingly timely. (Gary Barringer/Dry Cold Productions)

That a bond forms between this unlikely pair is not unexpected — and it happens perhaps a bit suddenly in the musical's none-too-brief but well-paced 2½ hours (with intermission).

But Kiss of the Spider Woman is less about mismatched people finding common ground than it is about finding courage and conviction, as the coldly sadistic prison warden (James McLennan) tries to convince Molina to buy his freedom by informing on Valentin.

It's a theme McTavish captures wonderfully in his performance. He conveys the surface frivolousness the irritable Valentin initially finds so objectionable, while dropping subtle hints that it's really a cover for the courage at his core — a courage he'd rather hide than have tested.

He's also a far more interesting character than this production's Valentin. Fletcher doesn't consistently sell the revolutionary fervour of a man who's willing to die, and let others die, rather than betray his cause — though he largely makes up for it with a passionate performance of the rousing second-act anthem The Day After That.

Rochelle Kives, as Aurora/the Spider Woman, brings some surreal trips to the production, which embraces the fantastical as well as the darkness in Kander and Ebb's musical. (Gary Barringer/Dry Cold Productions)

Kander's often lively and Latin-tinged music provides an ironic counterpoint to the grim setting, with big production numbers like Over the Wall and some surreal trips like Aurora's Where You Are — in which she and a kickline of inmates (smartly choreographed by Robert Boge) encourage a fantasizing Molina to "learn how not to be where you are."

There are also tender ballads, like Dear One, which brings together Molina, his mother (Donna Fletcher), Valentin and Valetin's girlfriend, Marta (Elena Howard Scott), in beautiful four-part harmony.

The music is performed well by a strong four-person band under musical director Paula Potosky and the cast of 13. There are good voices throughout, particularly from the leads (although Kives was sometimes partly drowned out by the band on Tuesday's opening night — an issue, I was told Thursday, brought on by the fact she was fighting bacterial bronchitis).

Adam Parboosingh's minimalist set, built around rolling sections of barbed wire-topped fencing, is stark, cold and totalitarian, and, along with intentionally harsh lighting by Scott Henderson, never lets us forget — even in the midst of big dance numbers — the brutal reality of the prison.

As the fight for basic human rights remains urgent for many, this production of Kiss of the Spider Woman feels sadly topical and relevant. (Gary Barringer/Dry Cold Productions)

Director Christopher Brauer's production — comparatively scaled back for a big musical — plays up some of the elements of the fantastical, but also strikes a sombre tone. Again, it reminds us that Molina's flights of fancy are only a brief respite from a reality he'll have to face before the musical reaches its unconventional but fully fitting end.

It's a solid, if perhaps not quite swoon-worthy, Kiss. But it's also a production that comes at a time when the world seems increasingly focused on division, and the fight for basic human rights remains urgent for many — making this show feel sadly topical and wholly relevant.

Dry Cold Productions' Kiss of the Spider Woman runs at the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre's Tom Hendry Warehouse until May 25.


Joff Schmidt

CBC theatre reviewer

Joff Schmidt is a copy editor for CBC Manitoba. Since 2005, he's also been CBC Manitoba's theatre critic on radio and online. He majored in theatre at the U of M, and performed in many university and Fringe festival productions along the way (ranging from terrible to pretty good, according to the reviews). Find him on Twitter @JoffSchmidt.


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