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I mean to take nothing away from the full-bodied characters who inhabit this week’s openings by noting that audiences are likely to see them in two-dimensional terms. Screen terms, to be precise. In their transvestite-meets-guerrilla and white-bum-meets-black-capitalist dramas, the men in Manuel Puig’s El Beso de la Mujer Araña (Kiss of the Spider Woman) and Paul Slabolepszy’s Mooi Street Moves are fighting political and social oppression. They are also fighting quasi-successful battles against buddy-flick conventions that make their fates seem pat and predetermined.
With El Beso, of course, that’s not merely predictable, it’s intended. Puig was mocking film conventions when he wrote the original novel—about Molina, an imprisoned, gay window-dresser who helps a leftist cellmate named Valentin endure months of torture by narrating movie plots about a spider woman’s webs of intrigue. While Molina is a naif and Valentin a sophisticate with regard to politics, they reverse positions when it comes to emotions or aesthetics. They might almost be intellectual stand-ins for Felix Unger and Oscar Madison, intent on reconciling not domestic concerns, but various prejudices about power, sexuality, and social responsibility. Meanwhile, Puig plays out a film-noir plot line involving deception and betrayal that allows him to extend his parody of movie stereotyping to the characters themselves. Molina’s proclivity for cross-dressing pretty much screams that he’s not what he appears to be, while Valentin’s political directness proclaims him a quintessential straight-arrow. By story’s end, both will have been irrevocably altered.
Most U.S. patrons became acquainted with Puig’s story through Hector Babenco’s Oscar-winning film version, which starred William Hurt as Molina and Raul Julia as Valentin. The author also wrote his own stage adaptation, which has long been popular throughout Latin America. On-screen, Molina’s movie reveries were illustrated as a film-within-a-film featuring Sonia Braga as the spider woman. At Gala Hispanic Theater, where the Spanish stage version is being given its local premiere (with simultaneous English translation), those visuals are left to the audience’s imagination, as Hugo Medrano’s Molina stares raptly into space, conjuring images with words while spotlit in flowered robe and purple, jeweled turban. His toenails painted bright scarlet to match the kerchief knotted at his throat, Medrano is nearly as ghoulish as he is androgynous. He looks dessicated, especially in contrast to Roberto Cox’s bruised but muscular Valentin, who deteriorates physically over time without ever seeming to lose muscle tone.
Director Abel López and his designers have discovered a variety of ways to enliven—through lighting tricks and stage business—what is essentially a one-sided political debate. Even for those who haven’t seen the movie, it will be clear from the start that Molina must inevitably acquire some political sophistication, while Valentin loosens up regarding sexuality. The latter half of that equation is less startling than it should be at Gala, since Cox makes the political prisoner a sort of new-age guerrilla, empathetic from the start rather than brutal and curt. That blunts the impact of later sequences, when the character gets physically involved with his cellmate. As a sensitive soldier, this Valentin never seems all that disinclined.
Medrano is effective throughout, delicate of manner and steely of will, with the ability to really lose himself in his movie reveries. When the spotlights accent the bony angularity of his features, he looks a bit like Anjelica Huston as Morticia. Mónica Raya’s jail cell isn’t terribly imaginative about incorporating spider imagery, but it gets the basic idea across well enough. The lighting scheme by Deirdre Lavrakas and Kim Kovac is creative on a budget.
A note on simultaneous translation—a necessary evil for patrons who are as linguistically challenged as I am. Those who elect to use Gala’s headsets will hear Daniel Luna (Molina) and Julio Alti (Valentin) doing a decent job of limning the emotions of their onstage counterparts. About midway through the first act, I discovered the trick to easier listening: Rather than turning the sound up high enough to drown out the stage voices (which has the unfortunate effect, since English idioms are often shorter than Spanish ones, of seeming to leave some passages untranslated), it’s best to use only one of the earpieces. With the other ear free to pick up the Spanish dialogue, the effect is of whispered aural subtitles rather than wholesale dubbing.
T hough the protagonists in Mooi Street Moves—Slabolepszy’s tale of two scroungers in a Johannesburg high rise—initially seem to resemble Athol Fugard’s down-and-out South Africans, they end up having more in common with Ratso Rizzo and his cowboy sidekick. The playwright has constructed his drama as a contemporary riff on the rural innocent meets urban con-man myth that was exploited far more intriguingly in Midnight Cowboy. He even ends the evening with an embrace in which a dying man is comforted by the neophyte he’s tutored in fraud. The moment plays falsely at MetroStage (formerly American Showcase Theater), as does much of the rest of the play under the overemphatic direction of its author.
The company has moved a couple of doors down from its cramped quarters in an Alexandria shopping center to a high-ceilinged, well-appointed space that is altogether more suitable for producing drama. Designer Carol M. Oles has filled one side of it with a free-standing, dilapidated apartment that’s crowded with appliance boxes. It is there that we meet Henry (Jeffrey Yates), a gullible white college student, who has returned to the home in which he once lived with his older brother. The apartment is now occupied by Stix Letsebe (Doug Brown), a fast-talking, vaguely threatening black street-entrepreneur who sells everything including televisions and drugs to his neighbors in Hillbrow—formerly an all-white neighborhood now largely populated by blacks. Since Stix claims to know where Henry’s brother has gone and is willing to employ the lad as a salesman to help him earn some money, Henry overcomes his fears of the neighborhood and moves in. His progress is slow—sales pitches aren’t his strong point—but in time, he’s wearing Pierre Cardin suits and talking as if he knows what the words mean. Stix turns out to have a heart under his rough exterior, but the two are mismatched and their partnership will eventually unravel melodramatically.
Slabolepszy has a certain gift for social satire, though I can’t say I understand from this play why he’s regarded in South Africa as Fugard’s heir-apparent. In Mooi Street, he seems relatively expert at setting up the con-man’s business techniques and at illustrating how prejudices can be circumvented in a society that’s undergoing rapid change. He scores laughs in a scene in which Stix recounts how he pretended to be not African but African-American to rent an apartment in an upper-middle-class neighborhood. And an extended sequence in which Henry learns street-selling techniques is nicely ironic. But for much of the evening, the author just seems to be marking time with idle—and repetitive—conversation.
As director, he’s encouraged boisterousness in his performers at the expense of subtlety. Brown manages to modulate Stix’s speeches somewhat, both in volume and in emotion, but Yates plays Henry’s panic, resentment, fury, and nervousness as if they all had to be projected to the back row of an auditorium at least 15 times the size of MetroStage’s new black-box theater.