Death Be Not Subtle

Ariel Dorfman's political potboiler opens like the creaky thrillers from which it's descended -- on the proverbial dark and stormy night. Paulina is alone, waiting for her husband to arrive at their desolate beach house. It's raining. There's no phone. A stranger enters.

Well, maybe not a stranger. As Death and the Maiden fans know, the Good Samaritan who gives Paulina's husband Gerardo a ride home and then comes in for a drink is the doctor who tortured Paulina 15 years earlier, when the country was under the control of a fascist government. Or is he? This is the question meant to torment audiences. Is Paulina transferring the memory of her captor onto the unlucky Dr. Miranda? Or is this man (whom Paulina heard but never saw during her imprisonment) lying about his real identity?

As a not very subtle political allegory, the play, of course, is asking other questions. They seem especially pertinent as Gen. Augusto Pinochet, the man responsible for the disappearance of thousands in Chile (where the Argentine-born playwright was raised) sits in a British jail, awaiting possible extradition and trial. What happens in the wake of a repressive regime, Death and the Maiden asks, when victim meets torturer? Now Paulina is in a position to do what was done to her, to decide the intruder's fate without hard evidence, tie him up, humiliate him, and threaten to take his life. But should she? How is democracy best served?

Set in an unnamed Latin American country in the present day, Death and the Maiden presents the dilemma this way: "What's more important," asks Paulina's husband, the newly named head of a commission to investigate recent abuses, "justice or truth?" As he explains to his wife, the tribunal he runs will be able to gather information on past abuses but, like many real-life tribunals, it does not have the power to punish the perpetrators.

Quandaries like these are realities for any number of fledgling and shaky democracies, from South Africa to Chile and Argentina, where truth commissions will never be able to give life or peace of mind back to the people from whom it was taken. Refugees of Kosovo might someday have to decide whether to kill the neighbors who helped drive them out or learn to live with them, staring down memories of torture and indignity. Is it enough just to record what happened? Or should they seek revenge?

At the Coconut Grove Playhouse, long before Dorfman's themes unfold, this production introduces its own set of puzzles, albeit less titillating ones. Visitors to the theater's Encore Room, where the tables have been rearranged to accommodate a two-tier trapezoidal stage, will be asking themselves about more mundane issues. Why, for example, doesn't Paulina's tall, strong-looking husband Gerardo (played by tall, strong-looking Christopher Bishop) or the formidably beefier Dr. Miranda (played by the beefy Gonzalo Madurga) simply overwhelm tiny Paulina (played by the very slight Ru Flynn-Sales)?

Why is Paulina so quick to grab a gun when she hears the doctor come into the house and speak to her husband? (After giving Gerardo a lift home when he finds him on the road with a flat tire, Miranda leaves then returns, having just heard on the radio that his erstwhile passenger is the new head of a truth commission. Gerardo then invites him in for a drink.) And why does the director have Paulina waltz around before the play even opens, gun in hand as though she were a demented cast member of Charlie's Angels, to the accompaniment of what seems to be heart-pounding B-movie music?

With its histrionic texture and its middlebrow treatment of serious political issues, Death and the Maiden is a difficult play to pull off in the best of circumstances. Even the 1994 Roman Polanski film adaptation starring Sigourney Weaver and Ben Kingsley could barely save the story from its over-the-top soap operatic thrust. (What's always bothered me is that the character of Paulina is just two degrees away from the offensive stereotype of an hysterical woman.) However you dress it up, the drama is almost always more sensational than thoughtful.

At the playhouse, director Mario Ernesto Sanchez, the talented artistic director of Teatro Avante and head of the International Hispanic Theatre Festival, sets an impressionistic tack, one that doesn't really serve the play. His production is unfocused, rushed, and confusing, anything but the provocative parlor game that Dorfman originally created. I'm willing to bet that most theatergoers won't even realize the unresolved ending is intentional. Here the action merely seems to come to an end arbitrarily, the characters seguing into a coda that's truly odd, utterly disconnected from the tone of the play.

The Encore Room's limited sightlines and acoustics don't help things, particularly because the production space has been manipulated to allow for a theater-in-the-round staging, with actors facing different directions in different scenes. I'm not sure if Paulina's face registered her recognition of the doctor's voice when she first heard him, since her back was turned to me. This is an essential scene. It's not till much later that she tells her husband it is the way Miranda sounds that convinces her their Good Samaritan is also the man who tortured her while listening to Schubert's "Death and the Maiden" quartet.

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