Woman Pleaser

Richard Trujillo may one day give a more thrilling performance than the one I witnessed on opening night of Actors Theatre's production of Kiss of the Spider Woman. If he does, I hope I'm present to see it. I usually find Trujillo's performances stamped too strongly with his own personality, but his portrayal of Valentin in Manuel Puig's play is an entirely original creation, delivered with restraint and passion.

Valentin is a political prisoner, a puffed-up militant trapped in the tenets of Marxism who, at the start of the play, is harshly intolerant of his cellmate, Molina, whom he sees as less of a man because he is an effeminate homosexual and -- worse! -- apolitical. Valentin's gradual transformation from intolerance to acceptance and eventually love is a tough acting assignment, one that's made all the more difficult by the black humor scribbled between the lines of this very dire story. Trujillo plays -- excuse the pun -- straight man to Oliver Wadsworth's histrionics, which helps illuminate the dark comedy here.

Based on his own novel (and not to be confused with the more-often-produced Kander and Ebb musical adaptation), Puig's dreamily claustrophobic play could, in lesser hands, have tipped over into camp or melodrama. There's nothing especially subtle about the juxtaposition of the story we watch unfolding and the plot of the 1940s film that Molina recounts to Valentin throughout the course of the play, but Kirk Jackson's shrewd direction overcomes the obvious. He steers the players through the tense, cramped story with a fine sense for drawing out the humor on the page without diminishing the drama, and keeps pathos from overwhelming the ultimate explosions.

And there's Trujillo's performance, which is all the more impressive when one considers that it shares the stage with Wadsworth's nearly operatic Molina. Because Molina believes he is a kind of a woman, Wadsworth easily could have played him as a simpering fruit and still nailed Molina's campy femininity. But the actor chooses a more ambiguous, almost genderless approach to a character who's really just one big ball of yearning. He plays the scene in this play that I always dread -- in which an ill Valentin shits himself, and Molina cleans him up -- with such dignity and grace that it becomes a high point rather than something laughable or horrid.

In an era where nearly every sitcom includes a gay character and when our rock 'n' roll and political icons are out-and-proud homos, this sort of story isn't as shocking as it was when Puig first presented it. But its new Actors Theatre production is both relevant and entertaining. For the next couple of weeks, at least, Brokeback Mountain has nothing on these guys.

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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela