A Spider Without Bite

A movie, a novel, a Broadway musical, and a stage play. The only popular dramatic form Kiss of the Spider Woman hasn't conquered is the TV sitcom. Given its high-concept idea -- a fussy homosexual and an idealistic politico sharing a small space and becoming the best of friends -- can the sitcom's arrival be far behind? Some ambitious network executive is no doubt developing the pilot as you read this.

Before you look for it in TV Guide, you can stop in at the Coconut Grove Playhouse, where Manuel Puig's 1985 stage adaptation of his own novel is running as the first production in the theater's newly renovated Encore Room. (This play is not the musical that ran on Broadway in 1993 with a Kander and Ebb score.) Earlier this month understudy James Puig, who is not related to the playwright, stepped in as a permanent replacement for Tomas Milian. Originally cast as Molina, the homosexual who wants only to be loved, Milian left the play because of illness. I didn't have a chance to see Milian, but I can report that Puig gives a performance that demonstrates why Molina is one of the great gay roles in the theater.

Indeed anyone still recoiling from William Hurt's overwrought and somewhat offensive portrayal of this character in the 1985 film should appreciate that Puig makes Molina swish but never ridiculous. He may make fun of himself. And he may know that he's somewhat pitiful. But this Molina is not inviting us to laugh at him, and so we aren't inclined to, in great part because of the actor.

The play's controversial turning point -- in which Valentin, a heterosexual political prisoner, wants so much to show his appreciation for the man who has cared for him that he accepts an offer to make love to Molina -- seems believable rather than contrived. And that's despite the fact that Chaz Mena, the Miami native cast as Valentin, is not nearly as compelling as his on-stage cellmate.

Why is Molina such a great role? Well, who wouldn't want to play Gay Pride's answer to Scheherazade? Puig, an openly gay Argentine writer who died in Mexico in 1990, didn't necessarily start out to create a minority-group role model. He created Molina, a believer in fantasy, as a testament to the power of the imagination. Nonetheless unlike a great number of movies and plays in which gay characters are serial killers (The Silence of the Lambs), victims (The Children's Hour), caricatures (La Cage Aux Folles/The Birdcage), or marginalized extras (almost everything else), Spider Woman empowers its resident homosexual with an idiosyncratic but potent survival skill. And what is this skill? Molina, as Spider Woman fans will recall, can remember every detail of every B movie he ever saw.

"You can see there's something special about her," Molina notes as he first describes the character who stars in the narrative he relates to Valentin. "She's not an ordinary woman. And her face [is] more rounded than oval, with a pointy chin like a cat's." So begins the story of the Panther Woman. (She is changed to the Spider Woman later on.) The tale, which Molina doles out in short episodes each night, not only distracts the cellmates, it saves their lives.

Molina, arrested for "gross indecency" (the same charge that landed Oscar Wilde in jail), and Valentin, imprisoned for revolutionary activities, have little else beyond this distraction of the Spider Woman to fend off hopelessness and terror and to help them get through the days and weeks of their prison sentences. That they thrive on the storytelling ritual is obvious when Molina comes to the end of a scene (the Spider Woman has disappeared only to resurface in a New York art gallery) and says, "I don't remember what happens next." Valentin, desperate for entertainment, begs, "Try to remember."

Of course, Molina's imagination does have its limits. His concerns don't extend far beyond his own well-being. Valentin, on the other hand, lives for global change. "I don't believe in that 'live for today' crap," he says, explaining that he spends his time reading and studying, caught up in an ongoing political struggle and the prospect of becoming a martyr. "I can't imagine what that's like," Molina tells him.

"No, Molina," Valentin retorts. "You can't imagine what it's like."
Alas, sometimes neither can the rest of us. The challenge of adapting Spider Woman to any visual or dramatic medium lies in the difficulty of portraying details of the oppression its protagonists face. Stylization hasn't served the story well. The failing of the Broadway musical, for example, was that (in the words of former New Times theater critic Pamela Gordon) it gave us singing, dancing torture victims. The Hector Babenco movie may have introduced Manuel Puig to most of the world, but it too botched the tone. It's more a curiosity than the statement about art and love Puig intended.

Before we can appreciate how the story of the Spider Woman helps both men escape reality, we need to understand why the prison cell is a kind of sanctuary for each. Molina's sentence is a continuation of the persecution he has always faced for his sexuality, yet he finds his first true friend in captivity. For Valentin the cell provides a different kind of protection. He listens to Molina's stories here, in the shadow of intense loneliness and fear, sometimes after a torture session. It's a tiny refuge from the larger hell of the prison itself, but a refuge nonetheless.

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