Death Be Not Subtle

Without this crucial bit of information, it's difficult to fathom why Paulina appears in the next scene, pistol in hand, and ties the doctor to a stake. (That is, to one of the three poles that serve as suggestions of furniture in Paulina and Gerardo's living room, where the entire play takes place.) But if Paulina's silent reaction to Miranda's voice was lost on me, a lot of the dialogue bypassed the older theatergoers around me. Three people told me they couldn't hear the voices of actors speaking with their backs to the audience.

It's important that we understand Paulina's background so that we can at least guess at her motives. At one point we learn that when she was a university student, Paulina was kidnapped, raped, and tortured. We must be convinced that she is potentially sympathetic, a victim of posttraumatic stress disorder, but also capable of bad judgment. We're supposed to be in suspense, not wondering how Paulina mysteriously holds two men at gunpoint. Anyone who saw the movie -- or a more successful stage production -- knows the only way we can believe Paulina is able to take control of the action is if the actress cast in this part is physically or psychologically imposing. Action heroine Weaver is believable in this guise, as is the psychologically menacing Glenn Close, who played the role on Broadway. Ru Flynn-Sales is not.

While Flynn-Sales' lack of physical presence renders the production ridiculous from the get-go, Madurga's contribution to the doctor's character is to make him a cipher. We're supposed to vacillate over him, too, thinking that he may be the monster who tortured Paulina. Like her captor, he quotes Nietzsche. He has a tape of "Death and the Maiden" in his car.

Or he may just have wandered into the wrong place at the wrong time. There's no real evidence that he is who Paulina thinks he is. Madurga, however, barely makes an impression. Rather than wonder who this guy really is, I found I didn't care.

As Gerardo Escobar, Bishop gives the strongest performance by default. But it's also a deft performance on its own. The actor's sureness underscores the play's greatest weakness, however. The essential question facing countries crawling out from under totalitarian regimes is not "What should be the relationship between torturer and victim?" but rather "How should the new government deal with each side?" Dorfman, a prolific novelist and a professor at Duke University, is less interested in this question than in the more prurient possibilities of confrontation between the Paulinas and the Mirandas of the world.

As Gerardo so poignantly reminds his wife, a primary outrage of dictatorship is that prisoners are not allowed to speak up. "Even if this man committed genocide on a daily basis," Gerardo says of Miranda, "he deserves a chance to defend himself." Indeed Gerardo admits that he is revolted by his wife's tactics. At the same time, he is heartbroken by the knowledge of what happened to her. This is the essential contradiction of the play, the reason that Gerardo should be the most interesting person in the room.

In Dorfman's play, Gerardo, as the stand-in for democracy, is considered a secondary player. In reality he needs to be the star.

Death and the Maiden.
Written by Ariel Dorfman. Directed by Mario Ernesto Sanchez. Starring Christopher Bishop, Ru Flynn-Sales, and Gonzalo Madurga. Through June 13. Coconut Grove Playhouse, 3500 Main Hwy., Miami, 305-442-4000.

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