Death and the Maiden misses the point.
The political psychological drama, Death and the Maiden by Chilean/Argentine writer Ariel Dorfman presented by the latinotheatreproject at Ballard Underground opened this past weekend. Set in an unnamed South American Country, after democracy has been re-instated, following a brutally repressive dictatorship, a married couple, Geraldo and Paulina, accidently encounter the wife’s former torturer/rapist. To add to the conflict, the husband Geraldo, played by Frank Lawler, an ambitious lawyer, has just been appointed to lead a commission to investigate the human rights abuses of the former regime.
The unnamed country is a composite of Argentina and Chile, which both had military juntas in the 1970’s and brutal human rights abuses. In 1973, the democratically elected Socialist President Salvador Allende, was overthrown by a CIA sponsored military coup, ushering in a Thatcherite economic paradise with Hitlerian repression of all dissenters. (they also de-nationalized the copper mines and compensated the Rockefellers, who had previously owned them) It is estimated that 80,000 people were interned, thousands were tortured using sophisticated torture techniques perfected at The School for the Americas, a CIA torture academy in the U.S. At this time, Argentina also had a repressive military regime where it is estimated 30,000 dissenters “disappeared”
The setting of the play is the living room of Geraldo and Paulina’s beach house; the play opens as Geraldo arrives very late for dinner (again). His excuse this time is valid-he has had a flat tire and a seemingly jovial type stranger, Dr. Miranda, has given him a lift. The exposition is overly long giving the back-story of the couple and his recent job offer, her inability to get over her abduction, torture and rape by government security forces 15 years before, etc. etc. When the doctor walks in, Paulina who had been blindfolded during her various “interrogations,” recognizes his voice as that of her main torturer.
What follows, in their living room, is a mock trial, during which Paulina pulls out a gun, ties up the Doctor but Geraldo convinces her to let him defend himself. The exposition goes on and on into the second act. Clumsily the author discusses themes of forgiveness and whether to give due process to those who have denied it to others. In the end, Paulina cleverly gets the doctor to incriminate himself, but his fate is ambiguous.
Although Dorfman, a University professor, has written a few plays, he is not much of a playwright and his “play” is not well crafted. It is written too didactically, telegraphs the audience too much, has little suspense, does not have conversational dialogue and the main character, Paulina lacks character development. Fifteen years after her torture, she is still exploding with vengeful energy and the actress, Tonya Andrews, played the role all on one overly intense angry level, which did not engage the audience’s sympathy or interest, making the play extremely tedious.
However, at the end of the play, the torturer, Dr. Miranda, played by Fernando Luna, has one long monologue explaining how a medical doctor evolved into a torturer, which was the highpoint of the play because it gave the audience a new insight into how a repressive dictatorship functions.
In my opinion, the play would have been more compelling had the writer focused on the torturer’s plight. While the Pinochet regime was going strong, I attended a lecture, by a South American Chiliean dissident in exile. One of the points he made, which I have never forgotten was this: When a person is tortured, eventually they get over it, they can find a way to integrate and accept the experience into their personality. But when a person tortures another human being, they can never reconcile the fact that they have abused another human being, they never get over it.
In addition, the director made several choices which worked against the production. First of all, the South American couple spoke with strong U.S. American accents, which was a little jarring, but the Dr./torturer spoke with a very strong, at times incomprehensible Latin American Spanish accent which confused the audience. Some lines seemed out of place, for example Paulina says that she doesn’t want the Dr. to urinate on the rug, when there was no rug on the stage. The doctor addresses Paulina at one point as Madam and Geraldo as Sir instead of Senora and Senor.
Often plays get a lot of good press because they have interesting subject matter. Unfortunately the interesting subject matter of this play was buried in the tedium of didactic dialogue and structural inadequacies.
Death and the Maiden by Ariel Dorfman, latinotheatreproject.org. Ballard Underground 2220 NW Market St. Ballard, Seattle. Fri, Sat 8 pm sun 2pm Through September 28th Tickets: www.latinotheatreprojects.org