Book: Terrence McNally; Music: John Kander; Lyrics: Fred Ebb. At: Benevolent Theatre at Trap Door Theatre, 1655 W. Cortland St. Tickets: www.benevolenttheatre.com; $20-$25. Runs through July 26
You've got to admire the pluck of some itinerant Chicago theaters as they cram challenging works into tiny storefront spaces. But sometimes they bite off more than they can chew, and that's the clearly the case of Benevolent Theatre's take on the 1993 Tony Award-wining Broadway musical Kiss of the Spider Woman.
Based upon the novel of the same name by Manuel Puig, Spider Woman is a darkly unconventional musical set in a prison most likely during Argentina's military dictatorship of the 1970s and '80s. Imprisoned gay window-dresser Molina ( Parker Guidry ) copes with the constant psychological and physical torture by dreaming up Hollywood-style production numbers starring his beloved B-movie star icon Aurora ( Jessica Kingsdale ).
But Molina is also under the thumb of the sadistic Warden ( Gary Saipe ), who manipulates Molina to try and get secrets out of his new cellmate, the standoffish revolutionary Valentin ( Darius T.Q. Colquitt ). That dangerous of dance of who is playing whom drives the tuneful songs by John Kander and Fred Ebb within Terrence McNally's engrossing script, which also plays up the odd-couple dynamics between Molina and Valentin that starts with outright hostility before ending with mutual concern and affection.
Spider Woman is a technically complex show, and director Jessica Harling's efforts in the tiny space of Trap Door Theatre betrays the company's limited resources. For instance, the too-bright lighting design by Austin Dambacher exposes far too many of the space's size limitations and the clearly small clothing budget at the disposal of costume designer Cherish Varley. Music director Clayton Horath has admirably re-orchestrated the score for a prerecorded series of synthesized samples to give the show a fuller sound, but a live piano might have been preferable since there were hiccups in a few music cues at the performance I attended.
Harling also makes some questionable directing and casting choices that might force you to stifle unintentional giggles now and then. The interpretive dance between Valentin and Molina during the singing of title song in particularly felt wildly wrong-headed.
As Aurora, Kingsdale dances the role well, though she could work on her unamplified vocal projection. And though the cast isn't as Latin as they could be, at least they all appear to throw themselves into their roles, even if they're not always appearing to be the most comfortable fit.
But as Molina, Guidry gets to shine as you see his conflicted character's emotions tugged at by Colquitt's butch Valentin and Saipe's angry Warden. Guidry's doing very good work in Spider Woman, although it's for less-than-ideal circumstances for a company that has plenty of ambition, but not the means, to fully actualize it.