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Tender Treachery

Plus, boys will be girls in musical revue

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There's nothing like a good long stretch of living in filth and degradation to change your outlook on the world. That's the grim reality of Manuel Puig's Kiss of the Spider Woman, now at the Central Avenue Playhouse in an evocative Victory Pictures production.

Peeping into an Argentinean prison cell, we watch a strange flowering of survival skills and ideological mutations, complicated by the bonding that occurs between two cellmates as the days and weeks trudge drearily by. Molina, a former window dresser, is apparently the older -- and more delicate -- of the two. He fusses with the food, wears silky robes, and amuses himself by retelling the plot of his favorite movie, lovingly stretching out the details to while away the time.

Young Valentin, an idealistic political prisoner who appears to have endured torture without compromising his comrades, disdains his cellmate's fripperies. But when he isn't reading Marxist political tracts, he listens ardently to Molina's movie narrative. As he grows more dependent upon Molina for palatable food -- and then for tender nursing when he falls ill -- Valentin grows beyond his macho disgust toward his cellmate's homosexuality. Eventually, he even reciprocates with some TLC of his own!

As we empathize more deeply with the two prisoners, it's painful to realize how their totalitarian captors are patiently and diabolically manipulating them both. The previously apolitical Molina is caught in the middle, loving Valentin yet needing to betray him to assure his own survival and liberation. By working the system to his benefit, Molina emerges as the stronger of the two prisoners. Far stronger are the unseen captors -- who ignore sentiment, loyalty and morality, resorting readily to torture, intimidation, deprivation and devious cunning to maintain the nightmarish political order.

Not a pleasant world to contemplate.

Designer Michael Simmons draws us into the evil vortex by arranging the Central Avenue studio space in a thrust configuration, relying largely on old planks and cinder blocks for his building materials, and using his lights sparingly so that we strain slightly to see the captives. Dean Kluesner's sound design leans heavily on Roderigo's famed guitar concerto and the Spanish explorations of Miles Davis, sustaining the languid tangle of intimacy and treachery.

Despite some waverings in the thickness of his accent, Robert Lee Simmons gives a gripping, multifaceted account of Valentin -- by turns vulgar and vulnerable, stubborn and self-doubting, heroic and childish. Without even messing with an accent, Joe Copley applies just a light, excellently judged patina of swishiness in his portrayal of Molina.

Some more animation from Copley would be welcome, particularly in his movie installments, which tend to drag a bit and lose definition. Similarly, Simmons could stand to boost the volume at times. Director Chris O'Neill gets so much of the pacing and fine detailing perfectly, but he seems reluctant to offer his fine actors some key reality checks. And somebody needs to assert himself about the dialogue that comes out of the sound system in the epilogue. That ill-defined hunk of sludge somewhat spoils the brilliance that precedes it all evening long.

The fruits of terror and thuggery-run-wild are more prevalent in other parts of the globe. An occasional glimpse can be healthy for us all.

Somewhere between concept and realization, Glenn Griffin's new musical revue, Songs We'll Never Sing has wandered from the true path. Off-Tryon Theatre Company's first musical features guys singing Broadway show tunes identified exclusively with women. Or it does when it clicks.We start promisingly with "Dreamgirls" as Griffin and his co-stars enter with long white gloves and silky Supremes moves. Signing off, "I'm a Woman" from Smokey Joe's Cafe has the gender-specificity that kicks the concept into high gear. But in between, we often get songs that aren't particularly feminine -- or familiar.

If you're not a Betty Buckley fan, for instance, you're not likely to recognize "Meadowlark" from The Baker's Wife. It's a damn good song, true enough, and so is "Memory" from Cats. But Griffin has the misguided idea that he can discard the kinkiness of his concept and take song after song seriously. You can if your goods compare with Buckley's. Griffin isn't close.

Worse, there's a rack full of colorful dresses upstage, but Griffin & Company are too politically correct to wear any of them. There's no special costume for the medley of duets from Side Show, originally warbled by Siamese twins. It's guys in tee shirts, even for "At the Ballet" from A Chorus Line and "Don't Tell Mama" from Cabaret. Griffin and Stuart Williams finally don wigs after intermission when they do "Class" from Chicago. But the same comedy was already there when women introduced the duet.

Running the show a second time at 11pm last Friday didn't seem to bring any exotic nightlife into the audience. But I suspect that the double duty took its toll on the cast's singing voices. The demure Williams shone brightest in his camped-up interpretations of "Somewhere That's Green" from Little Shop of Horrors and "Touch-a Touch-a Touch Me" from The Rocky Horror Show.

Amid a brace of way-too-serious misfires, Jimmy Chrismon scored a near-hit with "You Wanna Be My Friend?" Bradley Moore, flashing his trademark come-hither smile, was better seen than heard. Way better.

This would be a much better show if Griffin had let himself go with the flow of his concept. As it stands, Songs We'll Never Sing needs help badly -- perhaps from a rowdy audience of drunken guys or desperate women.

In its fifth season, Brightstar Music Festival has expanded to two weekends of chamber music concerts at Spirit Square. With sterling virtuosity from violinist Soovin Kim and pianist Jeremy Denk, along with beautifully balanced ensemble work from The Johannes String Quartet, the first weekend will be tough to surpass.Denk, a newcomer to Brightstar, is buoyantly extroverted at the keyboard, capable of heartfelt introspection, and devoid of arrogant eccentricities. His infectious intensity was equally attuned to the bravura of Beethoven's C minor Sonata #32 and collaborative roles in Saint-Saens's Oboe Sonata and Schumann's sensational Piano Trio #1. He'll be back to anchor a Mendelssohn trio this Friday and the entire Saturday program.

Meanwhile, the Johannes Quartet put on an impressive display, illuminating the colors of Ravel's lone string quartet and capturing the fire of Brahms's first. The wondrous transformation was accomplished by switching first violinists, utilizing the silken purity of Robert Chen for the Ravel and Kim for the Brahms. But Soovin was truly smokin' last Saturday on the Schumann, fearless and lithe in the three fast movements and so soulful in the penultimate movement that I was brought to tears.

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