Kiss of the Spider Woman
The Miracle Theatre Group
Through March 17

Notice the image alongside this review. Notice the stagnant lighting used to illuminate the two actors in the photograph. Notice the ugly contrast that coats the kneeling figure in dimness, and basks the standing figure in whiteness. Now notice the faces of the actors: Their sappy expressions of posed anguish could have been yanked off the proof sheet of some community college television studio's production of a Spanish soap opera.

I almost chose not to review the Miracle Theatre's production of Kiss of the Spider Woman based solely on the crummy grain of this pathetic excuse for a black and white snapshot. Luckily, the Miracle's stellar reputation combined with the fact that Manuel Puig's Kiss is one of the most gorgeous playwriting achievements of the last 20 years was enough to get me to go regardless. I say luckily, because it would have been very bad luck had I missed this production because of a lousy press photo.

I see the Miracle as a hideous toad, waiting to be kissed (no pun intended) by us princesses so it can change back into the handsome prince. Unfortunately, it's hard to kiss because everything from its press photos to the actual venue's exterior is warty and slimy, and smells bad; well, the theater itself is at least dilapidated, and its lobby is covered with that beige paint and those cheap silver-cylinder coffee makers that are reminiscent of church basement sales. But if you can look past all that you'll find a beautifully subtle piece of theater.

Puig's story of two men forced together in the confines of an Argentinean prison is dreamily passionate, and thus borders dangerously close to melodrama when in the wrong hands. One of the characters, Molina, is a man who believes he was meant to be a woman, which means it's easy for an actor playing him to succumb to overt swishyness. Thankfully, veteran Oregon Shakespeare Festival actor Andres Alcala, as Molina, avoids campy femininity in favor of a very heartfelt transsexual desire. Alcala is quiet and unforced, not flamboyant at all, but rather imbued with the maternal tenderness that separates the women from the boys.

Molina's cellmate, Valentin, is his counterpart, a political prisoner high on the fumes of militant Marxism who at the start of the play is intolerant of Molina's way of life. Valentin's gradual transition--from prejudice to a reluctant curiosity and finally to acceptance and even love--would be difficult for any actor to pull off, and Rafael Untalan handles it pretty well. His performance is utterly humorless, which makes some of the more intense--and yes, romantic--scenes feel a bit stiff, but his physical presence is strong, and his indignant political intellect completely plausible.

But what impressed me most about this production was its pace. Director Stan Foote has the good sense to let Puig's script run the show. He never rushes things, never overreacts to things. A scene involving a blow-out thanks to some poisoned food could have been laughably horrid, but the men do not lose their heads over it, handling it with care, and turning it instead into a moment of incredible gentleness.

Kiss is the first show I've seen at The Miracle, but supposedly the theater has been maintaining this level of quality for years. If that's the case, then it deserves to be a lot more popular than it is. I think if it improves its PR department and finds a decent interior decorator, it might get more princesses to kiss it.