‘Kiss of the Spider Woman’ at A Noise Within – The Timid Shall not Survive[1]


By Ernest Kearney — The National Reorganization Process.

This was the sanitized designation for the military dictatorship that controlled Argentine from 1976 to 1983 subjecting its citizens to, a restriction of their civil rights, a ban on political parties, and a campaign of state terrorism and extrajudicial murder—which came to be known as the Dirty War and be responsible for the disappearance of at least ten thousand political opponents, intellectuals, subversives, artists, and leftists.

Prior to this dark period in their history, Argentine had long been a theatre lover’s-paradise, with the stage playing a major part in their culture since the early 1800s.  During the totalitarian reign of the Junta, theatre, like all the arts, suffered.

From 265 new plays being registered in the capital Buenos Aires the year preceding the military coup, only 189 plays were registered in 1976.  These were almost entirely musical comedies, children’s theatre and foreign plays. The voices of the nation’s artists, and in many cases the artists themselves, had been silenced.

One genre that thrived, however, was the kitchen drama.  Tales of domestic violence now cloaked themes of political violence, which dramatists hoped would pass by the eye of the censors, unnoticed.  Argentine Playwright Beatriz Mosquera called this deceptive genre, “exasperated realism.” 

Over the coming years the weakening grip of the Military Junta was reflected in the resurgence of theatre in the capital; In 1980, 293 plays were registered in Buenos Aires, in 1981, 349 and, finally, 409 in 1983.

The fall of the Junta saw a regeneration of creative power to the Argentina stage: Roberto Mario Cossa’s De pies y manos, Griselda Gambaro’s Antigona Furiosa, Eduardo Pavlosky’s Paso de dos (Dance of Death – a “love story” between a political prisoner and her torturer.)

In 1976, Argentine Novelist Manuel Puig wrote his El beso de la mujer araňa (Kiss of the Spider Woman) while in exile in Mexico.  It was of course banned in his homeland.  Puig adapted the novel for the stage in 1983.  It was his second play.  He would write three more before his death in 1990 at the age of 57.

Puig’s story is one of confinement and illusions. 

Two political prisoners, Molina (Ed F. Martin) and Valentin (Adrián González) share a cell. Molina, a window dresser, has violated the regime’s decency laws by his conduct with a young man, Valentin is a subversive connected to an underground political organization.

The two men, with nothing in common, develop an aberrant symbiotic relationship of the sort that is so prevalent in prison conditions.  A relationship enveloped in illusion.

Valentin encourages Molina to recreate for him the old film noir classics that Molina loved to watch, and Molina joyfully does, thus allowing both men the fleeting pleasure of forgetting their imprisonments.  The first film Molina portrays for his cellmate is drawn from the 1942 horror classic Cat People by Jacques Tourneur, an unsettling tale of a young woman who may possibly metamorphose into a panther when in the grip of sexual ecstasy.  The second film that Puig uses is of an undetermined source, but maybe be derived from Nazi propaganda films.  

In choosing this device to bring the two men together and in selecting these films, Puig is encasing their illusion of liberation by overlaying additional layers of illusions one atop the other drawing the two men tighter into what each feels is a sheltering cocoon which, in truth, is a deadly web.

Everything here is illusionary.

“At times our illusions are the only reality we can bear,” sighs one of the men, and when desperation seeks it as a refuge, illusion is a cancer.

Kiss of the Spider Woman explores the dangers of embracing that cancer.

In their roles, both Martin and González are solid, sincere and at times remarkably moving.  My problem with this staging is not in the performances, but with the production.

And here I must go into Mome-mode[2].

Director Michael Michetti has neglected what is most essential to the play; the filth, the horror, the viciousness, the utter terror, the agony of repeated sessions of brutalization, crushed between the maddening dread of the next session which would then come the relentless, inescapable soul shattering suffering — the very forces that makes surrendering to illusion so enticing and would make these men so desperate to submit to it.

The Argentine detention centers during the Junta were pits of los desaparecidos (the disappeared), cauldrons of rape, endless torture, and ceaseless, crippling dehumanization.

That is what is needed to bring this play into sharpened focus, but what we have on the stage at ANW is a Motel Six in need of room service.  At one point Molina tenderly cares for Valentin after returning from a torture session.  Valentin raised his shirt to reveal the brutality he’d endured at which point someone behind me commented to their companion, “Oh, dear, he’s sun-burned.”

That said, Puig’s play and the performances of Martin and González serve to remind us all, that in the man-made hells of Andersonville, Dachau, the Gulags, Hakodate, The Hanoi Hilton, The Omarska camp, Abu Ghraib, the Xinjiang internment compound and ESMA that salvation can be found in the human touch.

(NOTE: In Featured Image – Ed F. Martin and Adrián González / Photo by Craig Schwartz)

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[1] “First we will kill all the subversives, then we will kill all of their collaborators, then their sympathizers…and finally, we will kill the timid.”   General Ibérico Saint-Jean Governor of Buenos Aires (1976—1981)

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[2] “Mome,” here I use in its original meaning, not as most modern dictionaries define it “a person lacking intelligence,” though I’m sure some would think that definition fitting; but “mome” from the Anglicized form of Momus, the Greek god of ridicule, denoting a “nitpicking critic.” Guilty as charged.

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Kiss of the Spider Women

Ran On Stage At

A Noise Within
3352 E Foothill Blvd.
Pasadena, CA 91107


Written by

An award-winning L.A. playwright and rabble-rouser of note who has hoisted glasses with Orson Welles, been arrested on three continents and once beat up Charlie Manson. His first play, "Among the Vipers" was a semi-finalist in the Julie Harris Playwriting Competition and was featured in the Carnegie-Mellon Showcase of New Plays. It was produced at the NPT Theater in Ashland, Oregon and Los Angeles’ celebrated Odyssey Ensemble Theatre. His following play, “The Little Boy Who Loved Monsters” was produced at The Hollywood Actors Theater, where he earned praise from the Los Angeles Times for his “…inordinately creative writing.” The play went on to numerous other productions including Berlin’s The Black Theatre under the direction of Rainer Fassbinder who wrote in his program notes of Kearney, “He is a skilled playwright, but more importantly he is a dangerous one.” Ernest Kearney has worked as literary manager or as dramaturge for among others The Hudson Theater Guild, Nova Diem and the Odyssey Ensemble Theatre, where he still serves on the play selection committee. He has been the recipient of two Dramalogue Awards and a finalist or semi-finalist, three times, in the Julie Harris Playwriting Competition. His work has been performed by Michael Dunn, Sandra Tsing Loh, Jack Colvin and Billy Bob Thornton, and to date, either as playwright or director, he has upwards of a hundred and thirty productions under his belt, including a few at the Bob Baker Marionette Theater as puppeteer. Kearney remains focused on his writing, as well as living happily ever after with his lovely wife Marlene. His stage reviews and social essays can be found at TheTVolution.com and workingauthor.com. Follow him on Facebook.

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