This theater, known and loved for doing serious, challenging work, opened its new season with All the Great Books (Abridged), an inessential giggle of a play with a surplus of pratfalls and a deathly surfeit of ideas. Then came Mother's Gift, a new play by the cosmically inept Monnie King, about three grown children struggling with whether to kill their terminally ill mother, as per her request (after the show, my theatergoing partner was heard to remark, "Shit with these three kids, no wonder the bitch wants to die."). These productions smacked of desperation, of a company casting about for any identity that might fill the seats and get the theater on the path to solvency. One wondered if the Public Theatre had lost its mojo.
Kiss of the Spider Woman is a good answer. Manuel Puig's story has made the media rounds as a novel (transcendent), a play (ditto), a Hollywood movie (eh), and a Broadway musical (crap). It's a malleable story: Puig knew from the get-go that meaning is where you find it, so he wrote his novel using nothing but dialogue, stripped of all the expository narrative used by most authors to give readers their bearings. By allowing his words to float free from any permanent context, he created the skeleton of a work that could come uniquely alive in the theater, in the hands of any director with sufficient pluck and verve.
Spider Woman is a dialectic, first and foremost a sexy dialectic. Stuck in a cramped Argentine prison cell during la Guerra Sucia, the "Dirty War," prisoners Valentin (David Perez-Ribada) and Molina (Michael McKeever) try to stay sane by becoming friends against their natural inclinations. Valentin is a revolutionary he wanted to overthrow the government, but the government got to him before he got to it, and now he's pissed. The thought of his comrades' risking their lives while he himself is safely incarcerated infuriates him beyond reason. So Valentin sits and broods and reads his little red books while Molina flits about the cell, trying to create an air of domestic normality. Valentin finds this off-putting, because by the standards of his time and place, Molina's anything but normal. He's a raging bull fruit imprisoned for homosexuality, an offense so horribly counterrevolutionary that Valentin can barely talk about it.
To pass the time, Molina spends weeks recounting the details of an old movie about a lovelorn woman who occasionally, inexplicably, turns into a panther. Valentin is resistant he thinks fantasy in general is a waste of time, just like feelings and anything soft. He calls it "trivia," and he can't help but rail against it, looking for bourgeois societal assumptions in everything Molina says.
Watching director Stuart Meltzer take on Spider Woman is to witness new shapes getting traced by old lines: Meltzer and Perez-Ribada reveal Valentin's uncompromising Marxism as a security blanket, and a silly one at that a retreat from emotions and human empathy into the cold comforts of absolutism. Perez-Ribada is an actor who could easily seem brutish, but Meltzer makes his brutality infantile, his bluster a high-stakes version of playground braggadocio. Midway through the show, Valentin reminded me of a quote from Lenin:
"I can't listen to music too often. It affects your nerves, makes you want to say stupid nice things, and stroke the heads of people who could create such beauty while living in this vile hell. And now you must not stroke anyone's head: You might get your hand bitten off. You have to hit them on the head, without any mercy, although our ideal is not to use force against anyone. Our duty is infernally hard."
It is this absolute acetic martyrdom that is Valentin's to shed, if Molina can show him how. In an era as preoccupied with oppressive ideology as ours, the unmasking of Valentin's extremism as the zero-sum game it is as the dumb, useless tragedy it is constitutes direction of enormous insight and prescience. When Valentin insists that Molina reveal the ending of the panther-woman movie, the implication is that endings and conclusions are all that matter. Molina refuses, insisting on coloring in the filigree the way an actress wore her hair, the cut of her dress, her manner of speech. Meltzer and the incomparably subtle McKeever turn Molina's insistence into a moral imperative: The filigree, Molina knows, is what makes everything else worthwhile.
This idea is the moral heart of the show. When Valentin and Molina finally consummate their growing affection in a long, slow scene that could devolve into corn but never does it's possible only because Valentin has accepted Molina's notion that each moment can be an end unto itself, devoid of ideological portent. Their lovemaking is the beautifully rendered end of their dialectic, its sweetness irrefutable proof that a world of equality for all but freedom for none is as real a hell as any other.
This Spider Woman is brain food, but it's also eye candy. Actress Ceci Fernandez, playing an ever-shifting array of bit parts (girlfriends remembered, prison guards, young revolutionaries, movie starlets), does most of her work behind a backlit scrim, her body crafting series of iconic images that make you marvel at the easy virtuosity of Travis Neff's dramatic lighting. It's far and away the most visually engaging thing to hit the Public's stage so far this season.
Public Theatre, this is what you're meant to do: Idea-laden scripts that lend themselves to elegant aesthetic statements. Promise to keep doing work like this and we promise to keep saying nice things about you. We'll fill those damned seats yet.