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theater: Tangled Web

The Triangle Players' "Spider Woman" just doesn't cling to the soul.


Somewhere in an autocratic South American country, a man is thrown into another man's prison cell. Molina (Tony Sharpenstein) is openly gay, apolitical and frivolous. He fantasizes about Aurora, a 1940s movie star who once played a character known as the Spider Woman. The new man, Valentin (Michael Hawke), is a surly and hardened political revolutionary. Predictably, these two men instantly dislike one another. In time, as they face the terrors of a police-state prison together, their relationship becomes deeper and more complex.

Unfortunately, we see almost no onstage moments where this emotional journey begins to take place. Molina is touchingly kind to Valentin, but there are few other sparks that would foreshadow the relationship we are asked to accept later in the play.

For the work of such a distinguished playwright, Terrence McNally's book has a surprising amount of excess in it. For example, when Valentin becomes ill, he unnecessarily describes with words the pain he is clearly experiencing. And although it drives the action in the first act, the warden's use of poisoned food is Batman-villain stupid.

Hawke turns in the richest performance of the evening. Imagine Harrison Ford's physical appearance (with a vintage "Witness" scowl) combined with a coarse monotonic speaking voice. Because of Valentin's tough-guy persona, the best moments in the play occur when he sings in a soft, fully contained voice that doesn't reach for the rafters.

Sharpenstein is often hilarious as the window dresser Molina. But he suffers a bit from the "look dreamily into the horizon" syndrome that blemishes much of the show.

Marilen Sarian is disappointing as the Spider Woman. Though her singing is thin throughout, there are tantalizing flashes of a far more accomplished voice. We should hear more of it.

There's almost no effort to transport us to the dark and dingy world of a totalitarian state in South America. In fact, a lot of this show works against both the Latin-flavored music (Kander and Ebb) and the Spanish cues in the book. Jay McCullough as the warden and Eric Russell as the guard seem especially out of place.

Things improve in the second act. The action is clearer, and John Knapp's direction is more settled and confident. Though there's little reason to believe that Valentin would experience such a dramatic change of heart towards Molina, we're able to accept it nonetheless.

Shon M. Stacy's choreography takes full advantage of Knapp's set, which is cold, metallic, and perfect for the space at Fielden's.

The Spider Woman is introduced through the back wall of the cell with an interesting lighting effect that appears almost holographic. But in general, the lights are often too bright for a prison cell. And contemporary stagecraft eschews the use of so many blackouts. They disrupt a show that is already troubled by an absence of fluidity. Blackouts are so much more powerful when used sparingly.

In the end, this production leaves it to the audience to connect the emotional dots between the lead characters. Despite a number of obstacles, we finally do make these connections and the show creaks to life. But it would be so much better if these dots were more clearly drawn and easier for us to connect. S

The Richmond Triangle Players' "Kiss of the Spider Woman" runs at Fielden's Cabaret Theater, 2033 W. Broad St., through May 5. Tickets cost $12-$14. Call 346-8113.

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