Putting on only a single big-budget production each year, the Arts Undergraduate Theatre Society (AUTS) lacks the reputation for staging raw and provocative art enjoyed by other theatre companies at McGill. Over the years, AUTS’s annual performances have been extravagant, playful, and prominent: its past four seasons have all featured popular Broadway musicals, including Joe Mastroff’s Cabaret and Howard Ashmen’s Little Shop of Horrors. Considering AUTS’s reputation for covering theatre’s mainstream, it’s no surprise that so many members of the McGill community are scratching their heads and asking, “Kiss of the what, now?”
Without breaking their streak of providing quality musical theatre, AUTS has stepped out of their comfort zone with their production of Kiss of the Spider Woman — a musical about prison life, seasoned with burlesque dance and lavish Hollywood reenactments.
Set in conflict-torn Argentina, Kiss is the story of cellmates Molina (Dane Stewart) – a gay window dresser who was imprisoned for displaying homosexual desires toward a minor – and Valentin (Ryan Peters), a Marxist revolutionary. The show focuses on the relationship between the flamboyant and optimistic Molina and the emotionally hardened Valentin as they find ways to escape from their small prison cell through fiction and fantasy. Despite the tortures of prison life, Molina and Valentin are able to find refuge through Aurora (Zara Jestadt), a beautiful movie star whose doppelganger is the terrifying Spider Woman, who brings death to those she kisses.
Put quite simply, Kiss doesn’t share the escapist qualities that are generally expected from musical theatre. As director Renée Hodgins puts it, “This is no Guys and Dolls”. Rather, Kiss is a grisly yet tender celebration of the arts’ ability to effectively move people through even the most difficult situations. To quote Hodgins in her director’s notes: “Kiss of the Spider Woman is a story about humanity that does not get told often enough. It is humankind at its best, at its worst, and all the complicated places in between.”
Production-wise, Kiss is practically flawless. Hodgins does a wonderful job of creating a world that is both sinister and fantastical, alternating between the play’s grim prison cell setting and the grand, embellished spectacle of Aurora’s film sequences. Stewart acts as the audience’s guide through both his characters’ lived and imagined realities, and plays off the other cast members effortlessly. Peters provides a strong counterpoint to Stewart’s more subtle and delicate performance.
Peters is also an exceptionally strong singer who seems a natural fit for musical theatre; his performance of the song “The Day After That” actually gave me goosebumps. Jestadt, graceful in her portrayal of Aurora, serves as a much-needed counterpoint to the show’s darker content. The only thing that I couldn’t fully wrap my head around was the decision to project bits of live action onto a screen at the back of the stage. Rather than enhancing the action, this added bit of technological glamour served mainly as an unwanted distraction.
Hodgins attributed her interest in Kiss, despite the risks involved in staging a lesser known musical, to its substantive themes and potential relevance to the McGill community. Indeed, Kiss’s themes are provocative and pertinent – from issues surrounding political incarceration to sexuality – but it also addresses the perennial question of whether theatre should be a venue for escapism or a platform for social and political discussion. Kiss demonstrates however that the two needn’t be mutually exclusive. Ultimately, the production impresses not only through its accomplished direction and stunning performances, but through its ability to deal with difficult questions and challenge our expectations for musical theatre.