"Death and the Maiden" at Mosaic Theater: Mysteries Shroud This Prescient Study of Torture, Tyranny, and Democracy

With The Pillowman, The Unseen, and now Death and the Maiden, the Broward County theaterscape has been populated of late by dramas with one theme in common: totalitarian governments and the havoc they wreck on innocent, or possibly innocent, lives. But all of them share another trait: the enigma of the unknown. They are mysteries of the utmost unspecificity, taking place anywhere and everywhere and leaving much to our imaginations, from curtain up to climax.

Americans don't like mysteries, at least not the unsolved kind, and at least not in visual media. In the great novels, where cerebral exercise is de rigueur, existential ambiguity has propelled many an author to literary acclaim. But this tendency hasn't worked as well in cinema, TV, and the theater, with our demand for all things concrete. If we have the power to see what's unfolding in front us, you damned well better tell us the whole story. Poor David Chase decided to end The Sopranos on a question mark and challenge his audience in the process — and he still suffers for that decision.

So consider this review as both a recommendation to collaborative audiences and a warning to concrete thinkers: Death and the Maiden leaves much unexplained, and it's all the better for it. Moreover, the prescience of this 22-year-old work is uncanny, and the way it addresses themes and terms that have become common in today's ethical discourse owes much to its fundamental obliqueness, no matter how much it will frustrate some.

Anthony, Cheda, Turnbull: Discomforting.
George Schiavone
Anthony, Cheda, Turnbull: Discomforting.

Mosaic's artistic director, Richard Jay Simon, seems to have latched on to Death and the Maiden's prophetic power in light of recent events, because he bumped out a long-scheduled show in his theater's 2011-12 season — Conor McPherson's adaptation of the classic horror novella The Birds — to fit it in. The play is set in "a country that is probably Chile but could be any country that has given itself a democratic government just after a long period of dictatorship." South American playwright Ariel Dorfman wrote the play in 1990, just as Chile was wresting democracy away from a military dictatorship, but if Death and the Maiden shows us anything, it's the universality of tyranny: Replace Chile with Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, or any of the Arab Spring nations and you wouldn't have to change a word.

The play is set in the home of Gerardo Escobar (Stephen G. Anthony), a recent government appointee assigned to a human-rights task force aimed at providing justice for victims of the previous regime's barbaric actions. He lives with his wife, Paulina (Laura Turnbull), once a victim of such an assault. Captured off the street and tortured and raped an unspeakable number of times, she remains traumatized nearly 20 years later, with suggestions of mental illness; she brandishes a gun whenever anyone approaches their front door.

When the play opens, Gerardo arrives home later than expected, having been felled by a flat tire and assisted on the rainy roadside by a Good Samaritan named Roberto Miranda (Oscar Cheda), who materializes later that night with an offer to drive Gerardo back to his ailing car the next day. Paulina is suspicious of this stranger, with his gleaming chrome dome, rash political opinions, and penchant for Schubert, and the violent action she decides to take against him will reopen old wounds.

Death and the Maiden is a work that shocks, shifts, and confounds. Dorfman's eloquent script peels apart like an onion, with each layer creating more revelations that either alter or enhance our previous perspective. With Gerardo as mediator, Paulina and Roberto balance delicately on a moral seesaw, both of them crazy, both of them manipulative, both of them right, both of them wrong. The play revels in hypocrisy and irony, and if it works its magic on you, you might find yourself in the difficult position of defending the rights of one terrorist or another.

Eschewing the comedic personality for which he is most known as an actor, Avi Hoffman as director is bracing in his commitment to material that is as dark and sordid as an unmarked grave. He captures a tone that, even when it makes the audience laugh, is one of overwhelming discomfort, leaving us hanging on every nasty word.

He guides his wife, Turnbull, toward another laudable performance. Her story of abuse is a microcosm for the rape and torture of an entire nation, and she takes it on with chilling alacrity, as believable when firing a gun as she is choking back a tear. Anthony is perfectly compelling in the unflashiest part, and Cheda, in his meatiest role in some time, performs with Machiavellian desperation, a conflicted poker face that gives away nothing until the very end.

Speaking of which — and this isn't a spoiler, because there's nothing to spoil — the end isn't so much an end but a new beginning or an alternate reality or something like that. The audience at the production I attended didn't know what to think or even when to clap. To Dorfman, Hoffman, and the cast, I can't think of a better compliment.

 
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