Manuel Puig’s Gender-Bending Political Love Story Still Shines
by Jeanette Quick
“Kiss of the Spider Woman,” now playing at A Noise Within in Pasadena, is a complex and intriguing production of a well-known tale. It’s a love story; it’s a political commentary; it’s an elegy to the power of two people regarding each other in their full and noble humanity.
Molina (masterful Ed F. Martin) is a trans woman locked up in an Argentine prison. She is raw and broken from a lifetime of gender abuse and despair. Powered by Martin, Molina is the pulsing heart of the play. She is a sensitive soul, victimized by violence—an outcast, loved only by her mother.
Molina feels ashamed of being locked up, of being “this way,” of putting her mother in pain, and the anguish flickers across Martin’s face like blows to the heart. In 2023, with violence against transgender and gender nonconforming individuals continuing to rise, “Spider Woman” continues to be a story worth telling.
Director Michael Michetti keeps this two-person play moving swiftly, yet another twist on Puig’s novel, which has been both a movie and a musical. The play takes place entirely in a prison cell in the notorious Villa Devoto prison in Buenos Aires during Argentina’s 70s “Dirty War.” When the military took over, political dissidents were thrown in jail. More than 11,000 Argentines “disappeared.”
Molina, the queer outcast, is thrown into a dark jail cell with Valentin, a revolutionary. Adrián González plays Valentin with macho swagger. He’s a Marxist political prisoner dedicated to overthrowing the dictatorship. Valentin has been thrown in prison for organizing against the military and agonizes about having compromised his girlfriend.
The two form an unlikely friendship born of despair. While Valentin shares his struggles as a revolutionary, Molina entertains them both with movie stories. Through Molina’s fantasies, they momentarily escape the horror of their present. Molina shows us that the power of storytelling to bring people together matters even more than Valentin’s lofty ideals.
Tesshi Nakagawa’s set—replete with crates made into chairs, black-and-white photos pinned to the walls, and a large Crisco storage can—amplifies Molina’s ability to make a home inside bleak prison walls. Even in the cell, she is always in motion: making tea, stirring dinner on a makeshift stove, and taking care of Valentin.
Jared A. Sayeg’s clever lighting and Robert Oriol’s snappy sound design deepen our understanding of their friendship. Light and sound convey the disorientation and monotonous passage of time in prison.
Through their days together, the cellmates become as close as two people can be. We see it all: the secrets they share, the ways they hurt and protect each other, and the complicated love that evolves.
“Kiss of the Spider Woman” challenges expectations about what is possible between two opposite people in the most terrible circumstances. Though Valentin is technically the ‘revolutionary,” the play’s layered approach to gender and love is the most revolutionary of all.
“Kiss of the Spider Woman” –by Manuel Puig, translated by Allan Baker, directed by Michael Michetti, at A Noise Within, Pasadena, California. Info: anoisewithin.org – to April 23, 2023.
Cast: Ed F. Martin (Molina) & Adrián González (Valentin). Voiceovers: Leandro Cano & Rafael Goldstein.
Banner photo: Ed F. Martin and Adrián González. Photos by Craig Schwartz