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April 13, 2006


Stage Matters

Anatomy of the Spider Woman


Two men share a prison cell in Argentina. Molina is a gay window dresser imprisoned for indecency who escapes into the romantic movies he recalls out loud. Valentin is a heterosexual Marxist activist, imprisoned for political activity, who listens and responds, initially as a way to pass the time. Their lives and deepest beliefs are revealed as their relationship evolves and changes them both, within a story that has elements of intrigue and tragedy.

This is the premise of Manuel Puig's 1978 novel, Kiss of the Spider Woman. It's been the basis of a movie (directed by Hector Babenco in 1985, starring William Hurt and Raul Julia), a musical and a play. The play, which Puig wrote, can be seen until April 22 at North Coast Repertory Theatre in Eureka.

The movie version and the play are very different -- they even revolve around different movie plots told by Molina. The play is much closer to the novel, reproducing large chunks of its dialogue. While the play loses some of the novel's complexity and texture, it has its own dramatic virtues: mostly seeing and hearing the characters, as interpreted by the actors.

The prison cell in the North Coast Rep production has some of the same look as in the movie, but the resemblance stops there. Michael Thomas (as Molina) and Paul Charles Spencer (as Valentin) make no attempt to imitate the inimitable performances of Hurt and Julia. They create their own versions of the characters, and because they do so with economy and skill, they demonstrate how live theatre can produce a unique, valuable and entertaining experience apart from any movie, novel or indeed any previous production of the play.

Co-directed by the two actors, the production moves at a brisk pace, yet their acting dexterity makes every moment expand with possibility. Neither wastes a movement or a gesture. It's a pleasure to watch two experienced, disciplined and thoughtful actors at work. Michael Thomas employs a restrained theatricality to create a Molina who is warm, funny and feminine, but also self-doubting. Paul Charles Spencer plays Valentin as quietly masculine, well-mannered, serious and compassionate, with his own demons of doubt. In terms of the play, their characterizations convey Valentin's middle-class and Molina's lower-class origins, an underlying element of the political and social themes. In terms of performance, they both win over the audience immediately.

The other elements of the production -- lighting, costume, scene and sound -- ably support the actors' interpretations and the story they tell. The play sacrifices some of the novel's early intrigue and foreshadowing to provide a provocative end to the first act, and the important action that happens offstage drains some of the drama, but overall this is a fulfilling night of theatre.

The novel deals more extensively with the authoritarian and repressive political context of Argentina in the '70s, and with Valentin's political adventures within it. But lacking much of that context, the political atmosphere for this play becomes our own (which may be why the most audible positive response on the night I saw it -- the second Friday of the run -- came on a line to the effect that if women were in charge, there would be no torture). Given our recent imbroglios over gay marriage and so on, along with seeing this relationship portrayed in front of us, the emphasis of the play is inevitably on that relationship, sexual and otherwise.

Now playing at Ferndale Rep until April 28 is Anatomy of a Murder by Elihu Winer, based on a nonfiction account of a murder trial in Michigan written by the trial's judge (under the name Robert Travers). It became an Otto Preminger movie starring Jimmy Stewart, and only after that became this play.

I haven't seen it yet but I did talk with the director, Renee Grinnell, a couple of days before it opened. She's chosen a film noir approach to this courtroom drama, expressed in the emphasis on lighting, to reflect the noir themes: "The hero who is pushed to the edge by the femme fatale, and the fact that nothing is black and white."

A soldier is on trial for murder. His wife was raped, and he is charged with killing the bartender he believed to be the rapist. But as the trial proceeds and more facts and motives are revealed, nothing turns out to be certain. The trial is also an early instance of a psychological defense.

"It's intense," Grinnell said. "You really have to pay attention, but people like that. CSI, Law and Order -- people like courtroom dramas."

This production stars veterans Gavin Lyall and Jerry Nusbaum, Theresa Ireland and Albert Martinez (who acted together in Ferndale's recent Bus Stop), Steve Sterback, Dmitry Tokarsky and Tim Simpson. Newcomers include Sam McComber, Christie Myers (who returns to the stage after a nursing career) and Karyl Simpson, a psychology major who is furthering her education by portraying a psychologist.

Grinnell also chose to set the play in the year the movie came out: 1959. "It's right on the cusp as the 1950s become the 1960s, when things were really changing."

One of the changes is the language, which was considered so graphic in its day that, according to Grinnell, Jimmy Stewart's own father took out an ad in his local newspaper to denounce the film his son starred in because it was offensive. But words like "intercourse" and "panties" are not likely to offend a 2006 North Coat audience, though Grinnell does issue one contemporary caution: There is smoking on stage. "But it's not tobacco," she added hastily. "It's herbal."

Kiss of the Spider Woman plays at North Coast Repertory Theatre on Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays through April 22. Mature audiences. $12/$10 student/senior. 442-NCRT.

Anatomy of a Murder plays at the Ferndale Repertory Theatre every Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. through Friday, April 28. Thursday, April 27, is the Actor's Benefit Night. Matinees at 2 p.m. on April 23, 29 and 30. $12/$10 student/senior. 786-5483.


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