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Tim Byrne reviews a darkly poetic story of two jailbirds stuck in a web of imagination

In Missing Out, psychoanalyst Adam Phillips's latest book about the ways in which we humans are forever haunted by the myriad lives we could be living, the author says 'We make our lives pleasurable, and therefore bearable, by picturing them as they might be. Our fantasy lives … are not refuges from (our) real lives but an essential part of them.' I think playwright Manuel Puig would concur. He has created, in his 1983 two-hander Kiss of the Spiderwoman, two prisoners in an Argentine jail who use fantasy as a genuine means of survival.

In Chris Baldock's production of the play for Mockingbird Theatre, the differentiation of character begins with the set. The bed on the left is draped in richly coloured blankets and cushions, and is surrounded by photos of Hollywood sirens from Dietrich to Monroe. It belongs to the flamboyant homosexual Molina (Angelo De Cata), constantly throwing shawls around his head in a paltry attempt to add glamour to the impoverished cell. The bed on the right is unadorned, books without dust jackets the only sign of occupation, and belongs to Valentin (Adam Ward), the Marxist revolutionary. Two distinct worlds will collide and intermingle in the two hours traffic of this stage.

The play opens in the middle of a fantasy. Molina is describing an entrancing and exotic woman who attracts the attention of a regular Joe, and pulls him into her dangerous world. It becomes clear pretty quickly that Molina is describing the plot of the famous 1942 Jacques Tourneur film Cat People, in which a young woman fears her budding sexuality will transform her into a panther. Interestingly, the film adaptation of the play changed the movie Molina is describing into a Nazi propaganda film, highlighting the political themes of the play over the sexual ones.

Valentin is a serious man, studying revolutionary texts when not working on his body, but the role of storytelling soon becomes an important part of the prisoners' daily ritual, and a bond develops between the two men. Valentin's determination to keep revolutionary secrets diminishes as his affection for Molina grows, and great tension is established over the question of what Molina will do with these secrets. As the relationship develops, the psychological need to escape seems less pressing, and together the two men begin to confront the reality of their lives.

A two-hander like this always relies on the strength, not just of the individual performances, but also of the rapport between them. De Cata and Ward work hard at this and it pays off beautifully. The blooming affection they establish is truly moving, and the ways in which each man learns from the other becomes a touchstone for the play as a whole. Ward overplays the intense revolutionary a bit for my liking, but is lovely in moments of intimacy and embarrassment. De Cata is fantastic, modulating his mincing quirks just enough to show us the steel underneath. What I find particularly admirable is his ability to summon a showy character without delivering a showy performance.

Chris Baldock directs with a minimum of fuss, and the naturalistic set (by Baldock and Merinda Backway) works well. The lighting (by Douglas Montgomery) misfires mainly because it is the one facet of the production that could have elevated the poetic and dream-like aspects of the play. Whenever Molina falls into reverie the lights snap into a blue and pink filter. It's obvious and a missed opportunity.

Kiss of the Spiderwoman is a play that wears its heart on its sleeve. It is occasionally sentimental and, like Molina, prefers to retreat into a fantasy world of its own making rather than confront brutality head on. It is guilty of what Valentin refers to as 'romantic eyewash'. But for all that, it is capable of genuine catharsis, and the prolepsis at the end of the play is devastatingly real. This production is another win on the board for Mockingbird, and a worthy end to their season.

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By Tim Byrne   |  

Kiss of the Spider Woman details

34 Swan St, Richmond 3121

Telephone 03 9363 5909

Nearby Stations: Richmond; East Richmond

Price $25.00 to $30.00

Date 06 Sep 2013-15 Sep 2013

Open Tue-Fri 8pm; Sat 2pm & 8pm; Sun 5pm

Director: Chris Baldock

Cast: Adam Ward, Angelo De Cata

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