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KISS OF THE SPIDER WOMAN: The Tangled Web of Story-Telling in a Prison Drama

By Robert St. Martin

Los Angeles, CA (The Hollywood Times) 4/3/23 – Saturday, April 1, was the opening night of a theatrical production of Manuel Puig’s Kiss of the Spider Woman at A Noise Within Repertoire Theatre in Pasadena. Michael Michetti directed this classic two-person play with Adrían González and Ed F. Martin in the roles as Valentin Arrequi and Luis Molina, respectively. The original story centers on a dialogue between two very different individuals who share a prison cell in Argentina during the time of a military dictatorship. Valentin Arregui, who is imprisoned (and has been tortured) due to his activities on behalf of a leftist revolutionary group, and Luis Molina, an effeminate homosexual in prison for “corrupting an underage youth.” This production of Kiss of the Spider Woman with Ed F. Martin in the role of Molina, which he says he “formed and fleshed out by the work [he does] in partnership with Michael as [his] director and the beautiful Adrián González as [his] Valentin.” Ed F. Martin truly captures the complexity of Molina who he is explains is “a complicated girl, and [he] slowly let [his] own life experience seep into the character.” This new production of Kiss of the Spider Woman seems quite poignant for our time, as the on-going discussion of what it means to be “queer” and strong has taken on a renewed interest.

Forced to share a cell in Buenos Aires’ notorious Villa Devoto prison during Argentina’s “Dirty War,” the two men forge an unlikely relationship. Molina passes the time by recounting memories from one of his favorite films, a wartime romantic thriller that also happened to be a Nazi propaganda film – Die große Liebe (The Great Love, 1942). He weaves the characters into a narrative meant to comfort Valentin and distract him from the harsh realities of political imprisonment and his separation from his female lover, Marta. Valentin encourages Molina to have self-respect and opens him up to political commitment. Despite Valentin’s occasionally snapping at Molina over his shallow views of film-watching and unrealistic romance, an unlikely friendship develops between the two. Valentin believes that true love can only be between a man and woman, but Molina wonders if other permutations are possible between two men.

Molina dotes on his aging, invalid mother who supposedly brings him food on a regular basis – and which he is happy to share with Valentin. But we soon learn that actually Molina is asked to serve as an informant on the leftist political cell to which Valentin belongs. His reward is the weekly stash of food items that make his prison experience more palatable. His lawyer is working to try to get him released and part of the deal is providing intelligence on Valentin. However, Molina is far too emotionally connected to Valentin to consider asking him any incriminating questions. But Molina is asked to spy on Valentin on behalf of the secret police. Molina has apparently been promised parole if he succeeds in obtaining information that will allow the secret police to break up the revolutionary group.

This new stage production of Kiss of the Spider Woman by Michael Michetti gives great depth to the character of Molina as performed by veteran actor Ed F. Martin. His resume is filled with many roles from plays dealing sensitively with LGBTQ issues, from Boys in the Band, to The Normal Heart, Twilight of the Golds, The Laramie Project, and Daniel’s Husband. What Ed F. Martin brings to his own indelible mark to the character of Molina is certainly what makes this production at A Noise Within so special. When asked, Martin said that he did not revisit the film version of Héctor Babenco, but chose to reread Puig’s novel in English and in Spanish – because being Latino himself, he finds Puig’s Spanish having a richer “poetic stamp.”

Many of us are familiar with the film version of Kiss of the Spider Woman (O Beijo da Mulher Araha), the 1985 drama film directed by Argentine-Brazilian director Héctor Babenco from a screenplay by Leonard Schrader and starring William Hurt, Raul Julia, and Sônia Braga. Babenco set his story in a Brazilian prison during the military dictatorship there. The film premiered at the 1985 Cannes Film Festival during Hurt won the Best Ward award and Babenco was nominated for the Palme d’Or.  William Hurt received “Best Actor Award” at Cannes, and the film received a further three Oscar nominations for Best Picture, Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay. In the original novel and stage adaptation, the character of Marta, the love of Valentin never appears but Babenco’s production added the whole backstory with Sônia Braga as his love interest. Babenco, being heterosexual, tends to focus more on the way heterosexual Valentin sees love with women.

Manuel Puig (1932-1990) originally burst on the new wave of Latin America fiction with his La traición de Rita Hayworth (1968), followed by Heartbreak Tango (1969) and Kiss of the Spider Woman (1976). Because he worked in film and television, Puig managed to create a writing style that incorporated elements of these mediums, such as montage and the use of multiple points of view. He lived in exile in Mexico from 1973 until his death in 1990, which was attributed wrongly to AIDS. He was generally considered to be gay. His novel Kiss of the Spider Woman was banned in Argentina, and the English translation edition preceded a widespread publication in Spanish. The novel was considered for a film adaptation by Rainer Werner Fassbinder, but it was eventually taken on as a project by Héctor Babenco after his breakout feature film Pixote (1980). Balenco’s version of the story seems to have a rather typical heterosexual view of the character of Luis Molina as an effeminate homosexual, but the original story by Puig is more complex.

The relationship between the two male actors on stage is riveting to watch, as the complexity of Molina’s character keeps us guessing about his motives as truly inhabits the role. Certainly, this is a pivotal performance for actor Ed F. Martin who seems to be a natural as Molina. The seemingly heady Marxist revolutionary played by Adrián González, so distant at first, slowly becomes entangled the spider web of Molina’s story-telling. Adrián González has appeared in a number of television series, including The Bridge (2013), From Here on OUT (2014), Superstore (2018), and Vida (2018-2020, as well as the movie Tejano (2018).

The Kiss of the Spider Woman runs at A Noise Within from April 1 through April 23. For tickets, go to: https://secure.anoisewithin.org/Online/default.asp