A conversation and KISS with Tracy Michailidis

Kawa Ada, Tracy Michailidis and Jonathan Winsby; photo by John Gundy

In an unexpected test of will, I have declined tickets to Jersey Boys to see Eclipse Theatre’s production of Kiss of the Spider Woman.

Is it because the site-responsive production is the first theatrical event ever staged at Toronto’s Don Jail?

Not entirely . . . though the match of prison-set story with this historic local setting fires the mind with immersive possibilities.

Is it because the team boasts Canadian theatre heavyweights, including acclaimed director Evan Tsitsias? A very strong appeal . . . but still no.

Is it because the musical is new to me? Absolutely not – I know well  this Tony-Award winning musical with its music by John Kander and Fred Ebb, and book by Terrence McNally. Improbably based on the novel El beso de la mujer araña by Manuel Puig, it is set during Argentina’s Dirty War, a time of civic, economic, and cultural upheaval. I have vivid memories of Chita Rivera and Brent Carver’s 1992 Toronto run (where Kiss was born).

No – what makes this is a must-see for me is Tracy Michailidis. The production’s succinct run (only 7 performances) in a small venue have made it likely to sell out. In that event, I would miss seeing Michailidis take on the title role . . . déjà vu after missing her in the also sold-out run of Life After (for which she earned raves and a 2018 Dora Award.)

So why chance it? By serendipity (or gut instinct), I make the right choice: Kiss of the Spider Woman has sold out its run before even opening. And as expected, it proves an atmospheric – and arresting – experience – in no small part thanks to Michailidis’ talents and presence.

The musical is an intimate story of persecution and friendship. Window-dresser Luis Alberto Molina (Kawa Ada) is serving an eight-year prison sentence. In his need to escape the harshness of prison life, he lives in the fantasy world of films, often summoning his favorite film star, the glamorous Aurora, who has played the Spider Woman. Molina loves Aurora, but he fears the Spider Woman, whose kiss kills. He shares stories of her with his cellmate, the Marxist revolutionary Valentin Arregui Paz (Jonathan Winsby), sparking a friendship.

Kawa Ada, Eva Tavares, Tracy Michailidis and Jonathan Winsby; photo by John Gundy

In keeping with Eclipse Theatre Company’s vision to re-examine and re-configure the classics, this production makes brilliant use of the multi-level Don Jail. The action plays out on the floor of the central rotunda, which was used for public floggings. The production harkens back to history with the inmates (talented students from Sheridan College’s Musical Theatre program) watching, empathizing, and agonizing with the spectacle from the balconies, enveloping the set in relentless claustrophobia. Frankly, jail has never been this engrossing.  

As the Spider Woman, Michailidis herself is fantastic, her astonishing voice put to magnetic use in Aurora’s siren-like presence. She is an Artistic Associate at Eclipse, and a sought-after soprano with international credits (Broadway, Stratford and Shaw Festivals, Charlottetown Festivals, and the US National Tour of Fun Home, to name a few). She also devotes a significant amount of time to teaching and mentorship. And all of this is in addition to her full performance calendar. Yet she remains accessible and approachable, fitting in time to respond to questions despite an intense rehearsal schedule prior to opening.

  1. Can you speak to us about your character Aurora and your approach to playing the role, especially for those who might not be familiar with the musical?

I play Aurora and the Spider Woman. One could argue they’re one and the same; the Spider Woman is one of the roles that screen star Aurora has played. Molina (played with utter grace and skill by Kawa Ada) looks to Aurora for escape and inspiration from prison life. My approach to playing her was a mishmash of things: watching some old Hollywood movies, reading Manuel Puig’s book, some investigation on how the musical was developed, some philosophical reading on death. It’s a challenge to play an icon, particularly one that was originated by another icon (Chita Rivera). I bow to Chita. I think I’ve tried to summon up some of my Spartan ancestors to help me find my stance. Kander and Ebb have written a brilliant score; it’s delicious to taste those lyrics and to sing in the basement of my voice.

  1. What drew you to this project and to your role?

The idea of it being site-specific was intriguing to me, as well as it being produced by Eclipse Theatre, a company made up of a group of colleagues that I respect and admire. The role is thrilling and terrifying: that’s why I decided to do it.  

  1. Why was Kiss of the Spider Woman  chosen as Eclipse Theatre’s inaugural production, and why is this a good time for Toronto audiences to experience this musical, in your view? 
Tracy Michailidis, Kawa Ada, and Jonathan Winsby; photo by John Gundy

I think it was chosen because Eclipse feels strongly about musicals that can be done intimately that have great impact. Pieces that make you think, perhaps make you feel uncomfortable even. American playwright Edward Albee said that ‘All theatre is political if it engages you.’ I think doing pieces in intimate spaces heighten that engagement, as does tying it in with a building that has a long history in this city. We live in perilous times (that’s another music theatre lyric I’ll leave you to guess), and I think the need for community and communion, both in the theatre, and to our city’s past, is something we are hungry for. I know I am.

  1. The musical has a strong connection with Toronto, having premiered here before heading to the West End and Broadway. Other than the site-specific staging, what differences would you like us to consider about this production?

Um, that we had a week and a half to rehearse? There’s that. I also have to give a shout-out to the brilliant Sheridan students that make up much of this cast. I can’t say enough about how impressed I am with their rigor, their inventiveness, their willingness, and their intelligence.  

  1. Most of the actual story of Kiss of the Spider Woman takes place within the walls of the prison, so setting it in the Don Jail is inspired. I’m curious about the fantasy elements (Molina’s films) and how they will be conveyed scenically… How will the fantastic dreamlike sequences that occur in the midst of the story be produced?

I don’t want to give away too much, but one of Molina’s lyrics is about how love can make life feel technicolor. Whether you take that literally or not, I think the fantasy sequences have a rhythm, color, and movement that’s very different from the cell scenes.

  1. The final word is yours. What would you like to add that I haven’t asked?

I’ll probably have the answer to this kind question about two weeks after the run closes.

Kawa Ada and Tracy Michailidis; photo by John Gundy

News You Can Use

What: Kiss of the Spider Woman, music by John Kander and Fred Ebb, book by Terrence McNally, based on the novel El Beso de la Mujer Araña by Manuel Puig; originally directed by Harold Prince
Musical Direction by Chris Barillaro; Choreography by Sara-Jeanne Hosie; Production Design by Nick Blais; Sound Design by Jeremy Mitchell; Directed by Evan Tsitsias
Performed by Tracy Michailidis, Kawa Ada, Jonathan Winsby, Eva Tavares, Jayne Lewis, Alejandro Ampudia, Hunter Agnew, Noah Beemer, Michael Derworiz and students of Sheridan College’s Musical Theatre Program  

Who: Audiences 16 years of age and older; the show contains mature themes, coarse language and nudity

When: On stage until March 10, 2019; Run Time: 2 hours and 40 minutes (including one intermission)

Where: Historic Don Jail, 550 Gerrard Street E, Toronto, ON

Info and Tickets: eclipsetheatre.ca

© 2019 Arpita Ghosal, Sesaya / SesayArts Magazine

Arpita Ghosal

Arpita Ghosal

Arpita Ghosal is a Toronto-based arts writer. She founded Sesaya in 2004.