Spiders and Balzac
By Davida Singer
There are over 35,000 named species of spiders worldwide - although only 500 are dangerous to humans - and spider silk is the strongest natural fiber, about five times that of steel.
Surprised? So was playwright, Kelly Stuart. But it was the researching arachnidan facts like these, plus a love of Balzac that led to her latest work, The Life of Spiders, a black comedy presented by the Holderness Theater Company, and running through mid-April.
The project began in 1997 when Stuart was living in L.A., reading Balzac, and had her house invaded by black widow spiders because shed disturbed a nest in the yard.
Theyd be hanging in my bedroom, and I even got stung by one, the writer remembers. Theyre beautiful and creepy, but I saw so many, I had to deal with them. I started doing research, became fascinated and overcame my fear. It all meshed with Balzac, and the way he felt about life. It was similar to modern life in Hollywood and New York - the ambition, the hustling and lying- coming to the big city to make it. So much of Balzac is about putting up a false front, and he writes a lot about credit.
That subject also struck a chord with Stuart, now 43 and teaching at Columbia. Shes been living an artists life since she was 19, first as a student at the Padua Festival, then as a little theater waif who ran lights in a Hollywood theater for room and board. She soon hooked up with a drama group, and saw her first play produced in 1986. There have been a dozen more since, including Demonology at the Mark Taper Forum.
In the early 90s, Stuart joined New Dramatists, and four years ago made a full-time move to New York.
My themes are obsession and desire, she says. My characters are usually obsessed by something, and then there are the effects of money and work. One of Balzacs books is a fairy tale with a Faustian bargain about skin. This play was inspired by it. There are things Ive taken, but its a whole other story.
In The Life of Spiders, a young man comes to 1830s Paris with his collection of spiders, and tries to extract silk in order to make his fortune. But its tough going, until he makes his own Faustian bargain. He meets a woman and ruins himself for her, for love.
The Life of Spiders includes an intriguing set by David Szlasa, composed of a white silk trapeze - Cirque de Soleil style - which can open like drapery and transform itself, so that characters appear entrenched in silk.
Then there are lines like this, Silk is a manifestation of the spiders will. In the web itself, you see all of the spiders thoughts. For added flavor, theres period music and costumes, and a special bonus - Louise Bourgeois donation of one of her spider and snake prints, to be auctioned off at the National Arts Club on April 7th from 6-8 p.m.
According to Stuart, the show is greatly enhanced by Rebecca Holderness very physical direction, and her main challenge, as a writer has been to help move the play from the page and find physical language for it.
Why does she feel The Life of Spiders is especially relevant now?
Its about how were so much living on appearance, Stuart answers. In our society, its more important than anything until the bill comes due. The play deals with what happens when you lie about who you are and what you can really do. And I hope people take away a question about the nature of love and desire.
Im looking at how theyre separate forces inside us that we have no control over. Theres also a gay connection in the play. The lead character, Lucien, is bi-sexual, and theres an older character that desires him. Its straight out of Balzac - the subtext in much of his work is bi-sexual. Because the play is about desire, everyone desires everyone here.