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Banned in Buenos Aires, KISS OF THE SPIDER WOMAN at New Phoenix Theatre these days brings a new angle to “Love is Love”

THE BASICS: KISS OF THE SPIDER WOMAN, a two-man play by Manuel Puig adapted from his own novel directed by Victoria Perez, starring  Rolando Gomez and Rick Lattimer, opened on March 6 and runs through March 28, Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 (Thursdays are “Pay What You Can”) at the New Phoenix Theatre, 95 Johnson Park (853-1334).

Runtime: Over two hours with one intermission

Simone Simon – Cat People promotional photo source Wikipedia

THUMBNAIL SKETCH (freely adapted from Wikipedia): Two prisoners, Molina and Valentín share a small cell in the Buenos Aires “Villa DeVoto” prison. The story takes place over one month in the 1970s. Molina, an effeminate gay man is in jail for “corruption of a minor” while Valentín is a political prisoner who is part of a revolutionary group trying to overthrow the Argentine government. The two characters seem opposite in every way. Valentin is physically solid, rather gruff and short spoken, and judges everything by whether it will help or hinder the revolution. Molina, slight and delicate, is prone to flights of fantasy, especially when recounting movie plots to pass the time.

1942 CAT PEOPLE movie poster by William Rose – source Wikipedia

Throughout the play he tells the story of a film he has seen – the 1942 Hollywood movie “Cat People.” Molina identifies with the shape-shifting “Cat Woman” or “Panther Woman” who was played by the glamorous Simone Simon. Valentin finds that the story of the movie’s supporting actress reminds him of his girlfriend, a relationship that was conflicted because, while he cares for her deeply, she does not share his level of revolutionary zeal.

Molina doesn’t share it either, but he does share his food with Valentin, and also tends to him when he is sick, and slowly during their conversations, the men grow closer to one another.

THE PLAYERS, THE PLAY, AND THE PRODUCTION: Please be aware that this is not the Kander and Ebb musical (book by Terrence McNally adapted from the Puig novel) which starred Chita Rivera as the Spider Woman. In the play, that woman who draws men into her web and then kills them with a kiss is never seen, and is mostly revealed in a voice-over epilogue.

Having looked forward to seeing actor Rick Lattimer in this play for some time, my wait was well rewarded. Lattimer, you may know, excels at playing “interesting” characters in the way that film actor Johnny Depp takes on roles.

If you don’t know Lattimer, he’s able to project a subtle essence of imminent danger that keeps your attention. You may have seen him in such recent “Five Buffalo” rated productions as SHE KILLS MONSTERS at Subversive Theatre or perhaps in THE JUNGLE BOOK where he was the tiger Shere Khan at Theatre of Youth. He was also very compelling in FARENHEIT 451.

And I regret missing him this summer in what I gather was a somewhat fey, self-absorbed, totally “one-off” Robin Hood.

The other reason that I awaited this production was because the director, Victoria Perez, consistently gets emotional and technically flawless performances from her actors, as she did once again here. I’ve mentioned before how much I admire her direction and I’m not sure how she does it, but I’m guessing it’s sort of an “iron fist in a velvet glove” approach. However she does it, she’s able to convey a clear vision of what she wants and the results are always impressive. As they are with SPIDER WOMAN.

Victoria Perez consistently gets emotional and technically flawless performances from her actors, as she did once again here.

With his portrayal of Valentin, Rolando Martin Gomez provides a firm counter balance, with his solid physique, even adding a touch of south of the border authenticity by virtue of his slight native accent, which, although Puerto Rican, is closer to Argentinian Spanish than how they talk in Cheektowaga. So it works.

The music also helped set the mood. The play opens to “Libertango” composed by the king of “nuevo tango,” Astor Piazzolla. You might not know this, but director Perez is also the vocalist with the Buffalo Tango Orkestra so she knows a thing or two about how things are done in Buenos Aires. Throughout the evening, there are several recordings of ballads and other popular South American music.

Buffalo Tango Orkestra

Even more authenticity is provided by the costumes credited to Richard Lambert (Valentin’s clothes look very lived-in while Molina’s are very flowing as if they were just plucked from a closet). Stage management by Mike Doben was sure (with only two actors on stage, the “support crew” has to work extra hard) and the lighting and sound cues (and there were many) worked well (lights by Chris Cavanagh, sound by Roy Walker). The audience sits around the set on all four sides (albeit with only one row along the western end) and I asked the couple who sat in that single row if they would do it again and they immediately said “Yes!” So, here’s a tip. For an “immersive” experience, you might try that when you go.

Lead Image: L-R Rick Lattimer as Molina, Rolando Gomez as Valentin, photo by Larry Rowswell courtesy of New Phoenix Theatre

UP NEXT: Edward Albee’s 1964 Tony Award winning WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF? starring Richard Lambert and Pamela Rose Mangus as George and Martha along with Brett Klaczyk and Pandora Lianne Kew as Nick and Honey. It runs Arpil 24 – May 23, Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays at 8pm (Thursdays are “Pay What You Can”).

*HERD OF BUFFALO (Notes on the Rating System)

ONE BUFFALO: This means trouble. A dreadful play, a highly flawed production, or both. Unless there is some really compelling reason for you to attend (i.e. you are the parent of someone who is in it), give this show a wide berth.

TWO BUFFALOS: Passable, but no great shakes. Either the production is pretty far off base, or the play itself is problematic. Unless you are the sort of person who’s happy just going to the theater, you might look around for something else.

THREE BUFFALOS: I still have my issues, but this is a pretty darn good night at the theater. If you don’t go in with huge expectations, you will probably be pleased.

FOUR BUFFALOS: Both the production and the play are of high caliber. If the genre/content are up your alley, I would make a real effort to attend.

FIVE BUFFALOS: Truly superb–a rare rating. Comedies that leave you weak with laughter, dramas that really touch the heart. Provided that this is the kind of show you like, you’d be a fool to miss it!

Written by Peter Hall

Peter Hall

Peter Hall continues trying to figure out how "it" all works. For over 20 years, as a producer and program host on WNED Classical (94.5 FM), he's conducted over 1,000 interviews with artists as he asks them to explain, in layman's terms, "what's the big picture here?" These days Peter can be heard regularly on Sunday afternoons from 1 to 5.

On “Theater Talk” (heard Friday mornings at 6:45 and 8:45 a.m. on WBFO 88.7 FM) his favorite question of co-host Anthony Chase is simply "What's goin' on?" As mentioned recently in Buffalo Spree magazine, Peter's "Buffalo Rising reviews are the no-holds barred 'everyman's' take."

A member of Buffalo's Artie Awards Committee, Peter holds a B.A. in Comparative Literature from Columbia University and an M.B.A. from SUNY at Buffalo. For over twenty-five years he was an adjunct professor for Canisius College’s Richard J. Wehle School of Business.

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