Black Widow

Kelly Stuart spins a tangled web for her creepy characters

In a web, you can see all of the spider's thoughts," remarks a character in Kelly Stuart's new drama, The Life of Spiders. If only we could parse the thoughts that went into this muddled but gorgeous production, a rotely cynical (and overly clever) comparison of human and arachnid behavior that concludes, not surprisingly, that we're pretty much the same kind of creature.

In 19th-century Paris, an eccentric and penniless Polish prince keeps a basement full of the hairy, eight-legged freaks, luxuriating in their loving attention and exhorting them in a mad-scientist screech to spin their priceless silk. Easily creeped viewers need not worry: No actual critters are to be found onstage. Instead, a co-ed ensemble of leotarded and bustiered performers alternately swings and scampers about. For their webs, director Rebecca Holderness and her gifted designer, David Szlasa, have draped the stage with flowing white sheets from which the impressively limber actors dangle in balletic repose.

Too bad the narrative is not nearly as elegant as the production design. The prince soon draws the attention of a haughty and seductive countess who commissions a dress made entirely of spider's silk. Many predictable black-widow metaphors ensue, though by the second act the story eerily descends into a macabre man-bug meld inspired by early David Cronenberg. As the cold countess, Kathryn Foster is strangely empathetic, never more so than in the sweaty throes of cannibalistic fucking. (No heads get bitten off, unfortunately.) But the play's many twists ultimately ensnare even this passionate actress, leaving behind an unresolved tangle of betrayals and double-crosses. Oh, the webs we weave: Why must they be so complicated when a simply laid plot will suffice?

 
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