Local Company Channels Broadway with Compelling Web of Persecution

The first five minutes of the Signature Theatre’s “Kiss of the Spider Woman” is pure electricity—snap, crackle and pop!

Reconstituted as a musical and based on Manuel Puig’s 1976 novel about an unlikely pair of inmates persecuted in a South American prison, “Kiss” launches with a visual and aural intensity rarely seen in local theater.

Prison inmates, suspended in cells artfully built along the sides of the stage, create a cacophony of noise while a tight and talented orchestra tucked away above the stage convincingly signals the drama to come. Then the calamitous action subsides and the acting begins.

And what solid, believable acting it is. The three main stars of “Kiss”—all Broadway veterans—are intensely believable and easily clear the high dramatic bar established by the production’s spectacular intro.

Hunter Foster plays the heartbreaking role of Molina, a movie-obsessed window dresser and theatrically homosexual man who is jailed for making advances on a minor. But as the play unfolds, we realize this is no sexual predator—rather, he’s a victim who’s been entrapped by the police for his sexuality.

It takes a while for his cellmate, the aggressively heterosexual Valentin, played by Will Chase, to realize Molina’s worth as a human being. Valentin, a serious Marxist revolutionary jailed for plotting to overthrow the Argentine dictatorship, only thinks he’s being tortured by Molina’s endless personal questions and inane chattering about Hollywood cinema.

But the real torture comes at the hands of a sadistic prison warden and his cartoonish guards, who repeatedly brutalize Valentin in an effort to extract the names of his co-conspirators. Soon, Valentin comes to view his cell—decorated and maintained with a woman’s touch courtesy of Molina—as a welcome respite from his suffering. Valentin even begins to anticipate Molina’s stories about Aurora, a legendary siren of Hollywood’s silver screen.

Hunter is slyly effective as he embodies the openly gay Molina with deep humanity and compassion. Chase, meanwhile, brings a sustained intensity to the rebellious Valentin, and his strong singing commands the audience’s attention. And Natascia Diaz is near perfect as the fiercely glamorous Aurora, who in fantasy sequences offers a dazzling display of glamorous femininity that creates a nice counterbalance to the bleakness of the prison set.

Aurora, who embodies the cinematic Spider Woman with her killer kiss, is impossible to take your eyes off of in a series of black dresses that sparkle like the Hollywood night. Bringing Aurora’s magnetism to life is Diaz, a fantastic dancer who hits every one of her marks in ensemble sequences where her skills outshine those of the men dancing alongside her.

Musical Director Jon Kalbfleisch and the entire orchestra deserve a special mention for the way they effectively help to build and sustain the drama, and then decelerate the moods in scene after scene throughout this satisfying production.

Adam Koch, the set designer, also contributes mightily to the production, crafting a mysterious environment where fantasies come to life at a moment’s notice and where reality returns just as quickly. In particular, Koch gets the subtle details right, such as the hollow drip, drip, drip of the decrepit prison’s leaky pipes, which adds to an overall sense of dread and despair.

“Kiss of the Spider Woman” is part of a salute to the Broadway songwriting team of John Kander and Fred Ebb—a celebration that will be bringing more legendary Broadway talent to the Arlington, Va.-based theater through the summer. With this intense, gratifying first installment, Signature’s “Kiss of the Spider Woman” lives up to the Tony Award-winning musical’s hype, as well as to the company’s own deserved hype as a new theatrical force to be reckoned with on the Washington cultural landscape.

Kiss of the Spider Woman through April 20 Signature Theatre 4200 Campbell Ave., Arlington Va., in Shirlington Village. Tickets are to . For more information, please call (703) 820-9771 or visit

About the Author

Michael Coleman is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.