The Vortex Theater Company’s “Kiss of the Spider Woman” is the antithesis of Disney’s “The Lion King”; the entire physical production would fit in the back of a large SUV, with the seats removed. Even so, the staging by Gisela Cardenas is perhaps second only to Julie Taymor’s wizardry for sheer theatricality on the New York musical stage at present.Such a grand statement is warranted by this strange but arresting “Spider Woman,” as Cardenas has placed her production in a prison — not only the action but the audience as well. The garage-like Meisner theater has been stripped of seats, with two raised platforms running lengthwise along the walls. Here is where the patrons sit — one row on each side — separated from the prisoners by wire. (The house is not conducive to people who can’t sit still for the 80-minute first act — the configuration makes it impossible to enter or leave during the performance.) What you get is a seamless “Spider Woman.” The Broadway version was two shows in one, divided between the prison-cell two-hander and dazzling production numbers (with a third element — all those prisoners doing aerobics lessons — on the side). Here, there is just the story of Molina (David Macaluso), a window dresser up on morals charges, and the political prisoner Valentin (Max Ferguson). The movie scenes are present — played mostly on a small stage area at the end of the shoebox — but attention never strays from the two men. We don’t get Technicolor dreams in the best Broadway manner, with stars and sequins and Rob Marshall steps; we have the drab dreams of a tortured prisoner holding onto some semblance of hope. The dreams are part of the overall nightmare. Not only is the staging seamless, but the aura is as well; at the performance attended, the audience was so intent that the spell wasn’t even interrupted by applause. This may not be the precise “Spider Woman” that Messrs. Kander, Ebb and McNally had in mind, but it comes across perfectly. You get none of those Kander & Ebb showstoppers here, but the score and the book are so mutually supportive and brilliantly interwoven that one can only marvel. The music is given untraditional handling, to say the least. Under the musical direction of Milica Paranosic (a native Serbian presently on staff at Juilliard), the score has been reduced to a recorded piano track. This track has been enhanced by synthesizer, with not only eerie instrumental sounds but ever-present background noise (trucks, chains, dogs, heartbeats). This places the audience within the echoing walls of a prison; the only live “music” comes from the percussive slams of tin slop pails pounded on the floor. (In one number, “Dressing Them Up,” the prisoners provide natural percussion by slapping down their playing cards in rhythm.) Rather than banging on bars, the prisoners — in their carved out cells underneath the ramps — kick on the bottom of the seating platforms so that the audience literally feels the scenery. Cardenas sees fit to add visual reference to those infamous Abu Ghraib photographs — which, given the nature of Manuel Puig’s original novel, could be seen as very much to the point. Biggest departure from the original is the division of the title role among three actors, who perform together (with one or the other taking the lead at different times). This has a remarkable effect on the piece, removing Aurora — the role created by Kander & Ebb sweetheart Chita Rivera — from the spotlight altogether, allowing us to concentrate solely on Molina and Valentin. Diehard fans of the original Harold Prince staging may find it difficult to adjust to the change, but the two-person focus recalls one of the main strengths of the ill-fated New Musicals production of “Spider Woman” in 1990. Macaluso (Buttercup in Vortex’s “H.M.S Pinafore”) changes pace with a touching and effective Molina. He is well matched by Ferguson, who displays a strong voice. The quartet “Dear One” is especially rousing. The Aurora triad consists of Nikki Van Cassele, Michael Beatty and Damien deShaun Smith (the most Chita-like and spiderish of the trio). Of the others, Michael Yeshion does an especially good job with the Mother’s two big songs. Cardenas, a Peruvian living in New York, serves as director in residence at the Vortex, where she staged an acclaimed “Agamemnon” in 2005. If this “Spider Woman” is any indication, Cardenas is a name to remember. The director’s vision is ably realized by her excellent designer team, Jian Jung (scenery), Oana Botez-Ban (costumes), Lucrecia Briceno (lights) and Marcelo Anez (sound). Effective choreography comes from Joshua Randall. This “Spider Woman” may not be for everyone, but Cardenas and her talented associates have created a musical theater experience out of the ordinary. With a limited number of performances remaining and less than 50 seats per, a quick trip to the Vortex may well be in order.
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