By BRUCE DENNILL
In the play Kiss Of The Spider Woman, adapted by Argentinean author Manuel Puig from his own 1976 novel in 1983 and translated by Allan Baker, a transgender woman, Molina, and a political revolutionary, Valentin, share a cell in a Buenos Aires prison, learning to understand each other through a series of wide-ranging conversations. In the Baxter Theatre’s new production of the play, directed by Sylvaine Strike, Mbulelo Grootboom plays Valentin and Wessel Pretorius plays Molina. The play was scheduled to run from 5 – 19 June, but is postponed due to COVID-19 restrictions.
The lockdown-enforced absence of work for artists in general means that the Baxter Theatre’s Golden Arrow Studio space is available for the cast and crew of Kiss Of The Spider Woman to rehearse and work in for the entire run-up to the play’s planned opening – a bittersweet bonus.
As I arrive to watch a rehearsal, a couple of technicians are working on the stage, a raised square platform that the audience will see from three sides, passing each other spanners and mumbling about what connects to what. En route to the small dressing room backstage to make a cup of tea, I pass actors Mbulelo Grootboom and Wessel Pretorius gently sparring with each other, verbally and physically, as they mechanically block out what they will be doing on stage when the tech guys are ready. It’s just a nerve-settling recital of words and movement – without nuance, but with fierce focus that means my noisy tea-making ritual nearby goes unnoticed.
It’s a chilly winter morning and Strike gets her cast to warm up by dancing a slow tango to Leonard Cohen’s I’m Your Man. Expressions are serious, though genuine grins surface as gentle misunderstandings occur and toes are unintentionally stood on.
Once warm, Pretorius asks the immortal question: “Can I change into my play underwear?” Turns out it’s nothing more exciting than a costume element, and as he pops out to change, Stike carefully paces the distance from the edge of the stage to the edge of the banked seating, making sure COVID-19 regulations are being strictly adhered to.
As an invisible onlooker, it’s fascinating to watch the trio work. The angle of a head is changed: “It’d make more sense if you looked that way.” A prop is re-positioned: “Where does this bloody blanket go?” An interaction is tweaked: “Do I take his hand here or not?” Strike’s use of language somehow communicates what the characters are feeling physically, but in emotional terms. It’s all detail and flow, highlighting what would feel natural over how a performer might first interpret a shift or an inflection. And when you see the minutia of it being painstakingly worked out, it’s clear how much of it is taken for granted by most audiences.
On one corner of the stage is perched an old-fashioned paraffin stove used by the actors (and the characters) to brew tea throughout the play – “Puig’s script constantly calls for there to be steam rising from kettles and water boiling; the man drives me mad,” comments Strike. It’s a fiddly prop, with a flame that won’t easily settle at a height everyone is comfortable with. A scene is paused to allow for a discussion that becomes a debate about how best to operate the stove, with much experimenting and talk of finding Swan Vesta matches because they’re longer and friendlier for fingers.
Back in action, Grootboom and Pretorius display a wonderful chemistry and mutual respect that is gently transferred from the actors to the characters as the plot develops. These considerations play out in practical terms as they prepare to rehearse a violent scene. Movement is stopped. A mug is moved slightly to one side and a blanket is re-positioned. As it turns out, the actors are preparing a landing zone for one of them, and when activity resumes, the dramatic results bear out the wisdom of having something soft to tumble onto.
Such attention to detail continues to catch the eye – and engage emotion. After the forcefulness of the noisy collapse in the previous scene, there is a moment of profound, sotto voce connection between the actors, and the dynamics are strikingly similar to the rise and fall of an orchestra crashing from a crescendo to a full rest. And it’s not only me as an interloper who notices such minutiae. In the middle of an onstage interaction, Strike leaps up from her chair. “I just saw something; it’s so beautiful. Let’s try this…” She also instructs her charges in what amounts to emotional choreography: “If your hands move like that, it doesn’t fit with the tone of what your voice is saying.”
The actors show an astonishing commitment to making every aspect of the piece work as well as possible. Grootboom questions a note: “You mentioned that Molina needs to touch Valentin’s face in a certain spot, but with where the light is coming from, they’re not going to be able to see what you’re referring to.” Close inspection reveals that he’s correct, so an angle is updated.
As the day progresses, Grootboom and Pretorius request comments and then work through internalising words; making them concepts and then expressing them via physical interaction.
Strike, looking at the stage, gives a crooked sideways grin that’s part happiness and part concentration.
“It’s the ballet of intimacy we’re working with…”
Then she’s moving again. There’s work to be done.