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Monday, September 17, 2012

Spider Woman Is a “Landmark” Production for Pandora


Kiss of the Spider Woman

Book by Terrence McNally
Music by John Kander, Lyrics by Fred Ebb
Based on the Novel by Manuel Puig
Directed by Michael J. Drury

Reviewed by Craig Nolan Highley

Entire contents copyright © 2012 by Craig Nolan Highley. All rights reserved.

Janelle-Renee Hunnicutt as the Spider Woman and
Neill Robertson as Molina in
Kiss of the Spider Woman.
Photo by Michael Drury
There are times when I write these reviews that I struggle for days to find the right words to convey my opinion of a given production. There have been times when I try very hard not to be too cruel to a production that is lacking, or not to gush too overtly about a show I found to be really outstanding. But I can’t recall when I have ever had the extreme number of superlatives that come to mind when I try to describe Pandora’s latest production.

I believe I am not exaggerating when I say that this is one of the greatest locally produced theatrical pieces I have had the pleasure of seeing. It is certainly the best thing I’ve seen in the small space of the Henry Clay Theater, and truly a landmark piece for Pandora. The company will be hard pressed to ever top it.

On the surface, it’s an ugly story that takes place during a particularly ugly place in history. In 1977, when Argentina is in a state of political uproar, an effeminate gay man called Molina (Neill Robertson) is thrown into a hellish prison on a trumped-up charge. Molina is obsessed with the movies, and only manages to survive his state by dreaming up memories of his favorite movie star, Aurora (Janelle-Renee Hunnicut).

His new cellmate is Valentin (Mason Stewart), a political prisoner and part of a revolutionary group trying to overthrow the government. The two men form an uneasy friendship that may or may not lead to love, but is complicated by a sadistic warden (Andy Epstein) and his guards as they try to force Molina to spy on Valentin.

It is a very dark tale from start to finish, and the attention to detail is astonishing. In the shadows behind the main action, for example, we can see the other prisoners living in as bad or worse conditions. In one corner a man flagellates himself after being sodomized by his cellmate; another rocks and murmurs to himself. It truly creates a realm of humiliation and human decay, and to call the effect unsettling is an understatement.

In stark contrast, the score by Kander and Ebb, especially the numbers performed by Aurora, are bright and ebullient. It is easy to see why Molina wants to escape from his nightmarish existence into this fantasy world.

That’s not to say that the music doesn’t have its poignant moments as well. The soulful, heart-wrenching songs performed by Molina and Valentin, together and separately, are as powerful as the nightmarish imagery.

This fantastic production is carried by two amazing performances by Robertson and Stewart. Robertson avoids any camp or caricature in his portrayal of Molina, giving the character a fragile dignity that never feels forced as the character arcs from the frail victim to the strong hero he ultimately becomes. As Valentin, Stewart is also amazing as we watch him travel almost a complete reversal of Molina’s arc; starting off as brash and swaggering, but showing more and more of a sensitive side as the play goes on. Absolutely stellar work.

Hunnicut has a lovely voice and is a beautiful woman but strangely underplays the role of Aurora; it’s a role that calls for a larger-than-life persona, and she doesn’t quite pull it off. It isn’t a bad performance by any means, but not quite big enough. It’s the only thing about this production that didn’t quite work.

In the supporting roles, nearly everyone in the cast gets his or her moment to shine, with especially strong work by Epstein, Carol Tyree Williams, Joseph Hatfield, Ben Gierhart and Patrick Vaughn.

On the technical side, things are just as amazing, especially the way the wrinkles in the black curtains of the backdrop combine with lighting effects to create a giant spider web. Costumes and props are also period appropriate. The choreography by Christopher Gilbert is also spectacular and deserves a mention.

It’s not exactly a feel-good show, but nonetheless very moving and one I have not been able to stop thinking about.

Kiss of the Spider Woman

Featuring Blair Boyd, Patrick Brophy, Adam Caperton, Nick Duett, Andy Epstein, Ben Gierhart, Christopher Gilbert, Joseph Hatfield, Janelle-Renee Hunnicut, Steve Jones, Sean Patrick, Gerald Robertson, Neill Robertson, Eric Sharp, Mason Stewart, Patrick Vaughn and Carol Tyree Williamson.

September 13- 23

Pandora Productions
at The Henry Clay Theatre
604 S. Third St.
Louisville, KY
(502) 585-5306

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