Lesson for Sept. 11

If we held them today, there'd be no doubt about the winner of the OC Weekly theater award for Most Relevant and Timeliest Local Theater Choice: Rude Guerrilla's current production of Manuel Puig's stage play Kiss of the Spider Woman.Anyone who has seen Puig's adaptation of his own novel knows there's more to the story's politics than a gay guy and a straight guy sharing a prison cell and reciting lines from old B-movies. But the political meditation on strength and bravery under adverse conditions seems somehow more profound after Sept. 11.

Spider Woman has flourished as novel, movie, musical and theater primarily because of its gay-dignity theme. But more provocative is its anti-fascist message. Set in Argentina during that country's Dirty War of the 1970s, the play is just as concerned with personal politics: how to be tough without losing your humanity.

Valentin (Mario Soto) is a voice of political activism in a time and a place when speaking out can land you in jail or a grave. But he refuses to shut his trap, even in prison. He is obsessed with the injustice raging outside the prison wall. Soto believably captures Valentin's anger, stoicism and brittleness. His cellmate, Molina (David Cramer), is apolitical—sort of. His crime is sexual nonconformity, living an unsanctioned lifestyle. Cramer delivers a spellbinding portrayal, revealing Molina's miniature world, in which thoughts, emotions, love and dreams fly freely through the prison walls. Cramer also manages to keep the play's central intrigue afloat: Is Molina, the apolitical gay dissident, really an informer?

Director Andrew Nienaber steers this vessel gracefully between its thematic poles. The psychologically rich work is realized powerfully by Rude Guerrilla's bare stage and a production packaged in a tight, dark, point-blank setting. There are some weaknesses: crucial offstage scenes between Molina and the warden, already brief, rush by too fast. The equally essential recorded offstage epilogue is also virtually lost—there's no visual support, and the recording is so muddled that we're never sure what each man has learned from his opposite. But these are fixable flaws in a production that is worthy of both the heart and mind.

Kiss of the Spider Woman at Empire Theater, 200 N. Broadway, Santa Ana, (714) 547-4688. Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2:30 p.m.; Thurs., Oct. 18, 8 p.m. Through Oct. 21. $12-$15.


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