Admittedly, I did not know much about Kiss of the Spider Woman apart from it being a Manuel Puig book I’ve never read, an Academy Award winning film I’ve never seen, and a Tony Award winning musical in 1993. So, when the Melbourne Theatre Company opened their season of Kiss of the Spider Woman, I attended on Opening Night on Friday the 22nd of November and went in without any pre-existing knowledge of the story, nor did I listen to any of the songs prior. I wanted to be surprised.
Honestly, I am glad I did it this way, as I was completely blown away by not only the thrilling book by Terrence McNally, the music of John Kander and Fred Ebb (Chicago, Cabaret and Curtains), but by the Melbourne Theatre Company’s brilliantly bold and ambitious production.
Set in an Argentinian prison, we meet Luis Alberto Molina played by Ainsley Melham, a gay window dresser who is serving time for corrupting a minor. With no way of physically escaping the prison, Molina escapes by diving into his fantasies, all mostly based around movies starring a glamourous diva named Aurora.
Aurora, played by musical queen Caroline O’Connor, is somewhat Molina’s imaginary friend, guardian angel and confidant. Visualising her movies in his mind, despite his physical circumstances, Molina is temporarily happy and free. However, there is one movie of Aurora’s that Molina did not enjoy: Kiss of the Spider Woman. Associating death with Aurora’s only villainous character, Molina is haunted by the Spider Woman whenever he witnesses death, and it frightens him.
Content on disappearing into his fantasies, things change when Molina gets a new cellmate after being alone for years, Adam-Jon Fiorentino’s character Valentin Arregui Paz, a Marxist revolutionary who despite being tortured and annoyed by Molina’s stories, will not give in to the authorities nor betray his comrades.
The two prisoners at first seem to butt heads with each other, Valentin even drawing a line in the middle of their cell. But the two over time become companions with an unsaid love, as they both lean on each other for support through horrific and torturous circumstances. With the prison warden, played by Bert LaBonté, constantly pestering Molina for information on Valentin with both words of promise and bullying, Molina is conflicted between his heart and the promise of freedom.
The Melbourne Theatre Company’s production of Kiss of the Spider Woman is Australia’s first major staging of the musical. Directed by Dean Bryant with Jack Earle as musical director and orchestrator, choreographed by Andrew Hallsworth, set and costume designs by Alicia Clements and projection design by Jamie Clennett, the creative team have managed to bring a convincing two-storey prison to life, which is haunted by a glamorous agent of death. With a cast of only eleven actors, the Melbourne Theatre Company production of Kiss of the Spider Woman is gripping, dramatic and mesmerising.
Caroline O’Connor is fantastic, and her duality is nothing short of amazing. The musical legend was perfectly cast and oozes with a fierce confidence in both her roles; one the light, dynamic, fun and glamorous diva Aurora that Molina adores, the other a dark, prowling, morbid, seductive goddess of death, the Spider Woman that Molina fears. Despite both characters being played by O’Connor, it was not hard to distinguish which character she was playing on-stage due to the incredible costuming by Alicia Clements, and O’Connor’s cleverly sculpted body language, which changed between the two characters. Intimidating, captivating and beautiful, I could not imagine anyone else but O’Connor in this pivotal role.
Adam-Jon Fiorentino is strong as Valentin, Molina’s cellmate. Pining for his lover, Valentin attempts to maintain his tough exterior by not letting anyone in. But it is Molina that manages to break down Valentin’s walls, which not only makes Valentin appear more open to Molina, but to the audience as well, and Fiorentino displays this change in his character effortlessly.
But it is Ainsley Melham who is the true hero of the show. His Molina is passionate, smitten, restless, sensitive, self-aware and anxious, and I loved every moment of Melham’s portrayal on-stage. He took the audience on a rollercoaster journey through every emotion that Molina was feeling; through ecstasy, remorse, loneliness and heartache. Feeling like the third cellmate (or fourth, depending if you count O’Connor’s Aurora character), Molina felt like a friend that we had gotten to know throughout the show, and one whom audiences cared deeply for by the end.
It doesn’t matter if you aren’t well versed with Kiss of the Spider Woman in its previous mediums. I was not and was still in awe. Dark and emotional with much depth, the first act may be a bit puzzling at first as it sets up the complicated storyline, but by the second act, Melbourne Theatre Company’s Kiss of the Spider Woman will have you hooked and on the edge of your seat, gripping and dramatic until the very end.
I am grateful that the Melbourne Theatre Company have brought this rare and uncommon musical to the Melbourne stage, and we are damn lucky to have this incredible production in our city. There are over 2000 different species of spiders in Australia, but this, without a doubt, is the best one.
Melbourne Theatre Company’s production of Kiss of the Spider Woman is now playing at Southbank Theatre, The Sumner until December 28, 2019.
For more information on the show and ticketing, visit: https://www.mtc.com.au/plays-and-tickets/season-2019/kiss-of-the-spider-woman/
Photography by Jeff Busby.