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So Much Theatre: Death and the Maiden

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Photo by David Whiteley.Photo by David Whiteley.

Death and the Maiden is set in Chile in 1990, in the aftermath of the Pinochet regime.  Fifteen years earlier, Paulina Salas (Geneviève Sirois) was abducted, tortured, and raped for two months.  A chance meeting has her husband Gerardo Escobar (Chris Ralph), a lawyer freshly appointed to the new government’s commission to investigate the prior regime’s human rights abuses, bring home Dr. Roberto Miranda (Paul Rainville), who Salas recognizes from her past.  In an eruption of years of repressed emotion, she turns the tables on her former captor.  She wants revenge; her husband wants justice; Dr. Miranda wants to live.

Right away, there is a life-or-death conflict.  So this should be an exciting, suspenseful, thrilling play. And it is, at times, but not as much as it ought to be. Chilean-Argentinian playwright Ariel Dorfman set Death and the Maiden in a real historical setting that, although international news at the time, may not be familiar to everyone. Consequently, much of the dialogue is dedicated to establishing the political environment at the time, and although that environment itself was thrilling, we can hardly expect its description to be. When the action and the dialogue do turn visceral, unfortunately the performances don’t consistently match the intensity of the text. In this case, it’s not the pacing that’s off: it’s the passion. It would be stereotypical to expect that Latin-American characters will always be passionate, expressive, and flamboyant.  In this situation, however, confronted with these conflicts, whatever the characters’ cultural background, they should be at the very edge of their emotions on the brink of violent expression of their passions. At the very least, the act of binding a conscious person to a chair should involve some sort of struggle or resistance.

Rainville’s performance is the most riveting, perhaps because its peak is in the form of a monologue, whereas Ralph and Sirois spend most of their time pitted against each other, arguing about him. When Ralph’s passion does kick in, it seems a bit abrupt. Sirois is uneven, and since it is her character’s emotional breaking point, her desire for some kind of personal justice, that is the impetus behind the events in the play, she is on average about a tenth as intense as she needs to be to be sympathetic.  The audience needs to feel her pain, or there is no conflict and no suspense. Part of this lack of veracity may have been due to concentrating on less-important aspects of characterization—specifically, accents.  I’ve said before that if you can’t maintain an accent, you shouldn’t do it on stage—or be directed to. A halfway-effective effort is infinitely more distracting than an actor concentrating on other aspects of their characterization. The structure of the text requires the overall intensity to start early and increase steadily until the climax; this unfortunately was not the way it was played.

Andrea Robertson Walker’s set is an impressive three-level platform neatly evoking both the inside and outside of the Escobars’ beach house in a somewhat cubist manner. Most of the action takes place in a narrow band midstage, but the shallowness of the playing area is made up for by the depth of the set and suggested action offstage. David Magladry’s dynamic lighting lends essential realism to this offstage action, as well as a sense of the passage of time. The visual and auditory production values are quite high for a professional show of this size.

The final scene of Death and the Maiden is baffling, and strikes me as unnecessary. The play presents a dialectic, essentially, between personal revenge and social justice, without deciding positively for one or the other. This is perfectly fine, and in the spirit of Boal (or even Blackbird) encourages the continuation of the debate in the minds of the audience after they’ve left the theatre. Or it would have, had this final, ineffectually symbolic scene not ruined the uncertainty. This is one case, in my opinion, where not resolving the story would not only make sense, but be beneficial, and I don’t think the artistic intention comes across well enough to outweigh that.

Whether or not the themes are universal in an abstract sense, Death and the Maiden deals with events that happened within living memory and remind us that totalitarian militaristic regimes that torture their citizens still exist and have effects on individual lives that long outlast their dictators.

Death and the Maiden is playing at the Gladstone Theatre () until May 19. Tickets are $23-$39.

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