First produced in England in 1991, Death and the Maiden (named after the piece by Schubert that the doctor used to listen to as he was torturing his victims) feeds off personal testimonies and well published newspaper reports of the horrors perpetrated by the Chilean secret police (DINA) and the military after the takeover in 1973. In 1976, Orlando Letellier an ex-minister in Allende’s cabinet came to Ottawa to lecture at the University of Ottawa about the situation in Chile after the “golpe” and two weeks later he was killed by a bomb in Washington, another victim of the Condor operation that was so highly publicised. The DINA was therefore operating openly in North America hunting for its victims and one had to be willfully indifferent not to have seen those reports and or understood what was happening in Chile and elsewhere in Latin America at that time.
I mention this because I first saw a production of Death and the Maiden at the NAC soon after the play appeared in the United States. The subject matter annoyed me greatly because it appeared , at that point in time, that Dorfman was exploiting a well-publicized tragedy to produce a good thriller and attract attention to himself as a writer. It almost seemed indecent to speak of such things in such spectacular terms when those very survivors were still among us in Canada. I remember leaving the theatre before it ended vowing never to see the play again.
It is clear that time heals many things and thus, over twenty years later, I discovered a lot in this production by Plosive Theatre which I was able to watch with a lot more distance. This production is certainly not perfect but director Craig Walker’s rendering of Death and the Maiden is extremely thoughtful and focussed, leading us along the many the theatrical path of multiple human emotions that unravel during this disturbing encounter.
It takes place one evening in a beautiful upper middle class house in Chile, around 1991. Andrea Robertson Walker’s set suggested comfortable elegance and I liked the large abstract paintings that added interesting splashes of passionate colour to the space. A final painting adds the final touch confirming the ambiguity of the play’s conclusion where we see two intertwined figures, the male figure could be embracing the woman or he could be torturing her. Nothing is clear. But the highly agitated atmosphere of chaotic colour and twisted bodies show the remnants of destruction that events have left in their path. That idea of that painting was beautiful and summed up the play perfectly.
I don’t want to go into the details of the play but it is sufficient to say that Paula Salas (played by Geneviève Sirois) thinks she recognizes Roberto Miranda (Paul Rainville) , an apparently innocent house guest, as her former torturer when she was taken prisoner by the “Dina” during those Pinochet years . She ties up Miranda, waves a gun in his face, threatening to shoot him if he doesn’t tell the truth. Her husband Gerardo is caught in the middle of this drama that unfolds during an evening of confessions, of emotional crisis, of terrible revelations and confrontations that bring them all to the brink of tragedy.
What Dorfman seems to tell us is that it doesn’t really matter if Roberto is the man or not. The play is really about the wounds left by torture, by the experience of humiliation, of pain and cruelty, of subjugation and abjection that left profound mental and social on the people concerned. The experience has transformed individuals into monsters who will never be free of that experience. The husband Gerardo, who is involved in Chilean war crimes investigations, aiming to document the truth with as much justice and impartiality as possible, is pushed to the brink of his own tolerance and finds himself almost wishing for the very vengeance that feeds his wife’s deepest desires as she confronts the man she believes to be her torturer. Paula has become someone capable of killing, someone obsessed with her rage, “doing to him what he did to me”, with making him suffer. Miranda insists on his innocence but is ready to tell any story at all to be released and the one scene where Paul Rainville’s performance rises to excellent heights was the moment when, under Macgladry’s effects of monstrous expressionist lighting, tells us how a “normal” man, a doctor, could possibly be transformed, by the circumstances, into a sadistic torturer and even come to enjoy the excitement of it all. It was a magnificent monologue that was really the centre of the play. At this point, Rainville becomes a mythical historical figure that has surfaced in the Hitler’s Death Camps, in Stalin’s camps, in any kind of universe that dehumanizes individuals, the victims and much as those in charge. All those in such situations are traumatised. They carry the traces, the inexorably twisted psyches, that eat away at their own stability and their personal relationships, destroying all peace of mind. The play captures that very well
It seemed clear that director Craig Walker wanted, at the outset, to establish a certain amount of distance between us and Dorfman’s characters, so that the final violent outbursts in the second part of the evening would be all the more powerful. I must say that it was Chris Ralph as Gerardo the husband who established the most convincing and performance because right from the beginning, even if he apparently was not aware of the details of his wife’s experience in Pinochet’s prison, we felt a certain vulnerability that would eventually take over his characters as he is drawn into the terrible confessions of his own. the horror of what he finally learns about his wife’s experience. In spite of the official ceremony at the end that seems to put closure on this episode, we know he will never be the same again.
In fact neither will the other characters, except that neither Genevieve Sirois, nor Paul Rainville succeeded in making me feel the depth of their disturbance (apart from Miranda’s monologue mentioned earlier). Rainville gave the impression that he was not really experiencing the deep discomfort associated with the situation of this man who possible is a torturer, but who, in any case, has not been untouched by the country’s past. Hi extraordinary calm does not give the slightest inkling that he is harbouring a neurotic twist in his make-up, and the moments of real emotional explosion when he is confronted by Paula, also felt a bit too “performed”. He did not interiorize his role nearly enough.
I felt the same thing in relation to much of Genevieve Sirois’ performance. The text is full of hints of the confrontation to come but Mme Sirois’ performance of shock, and fear that built up to her attack on the Doctor was in a strange way full of theatrical mannerisms that was supposed to show her attempt to hide her terrible depressive nature, her disturbed mind, but they also looked too “performed”. Somehow I felt that the actress did not totally assume her character, even at the most emotional moments.
The set is attractive and offers a perfect space for characters who need to hide without leaving the stage, move off and on moving through the house and to give the impression they are listening to other conversations without being seen. Magladry’s lighting and Craig Walker’s sound effects are extremely effective when the cars roar up to the door step and especially during that most nightmarish moment when Miranda is transformed into the mythical sadist, spawned by such totalitarian regimes the world over.
This performance is certainly worth seeing, especially given the time frame where a good portion of the audience probably was too young to remember the events in Chile. It becomes an excellent learning experience, even if the subject matter is not pleasant. The play also shows how a writer adapts recent history to the stage, producing a text that delves into very thorny questions with much depth. I couldn’t help but compare Death and the Maiden to Hannah Moscovitch’s play East of Berlin which also dealt with the discovery of past horrors in the family. Although both plays were very well directed (Joel Beddows was responsible for East of Berlin) , playwright Moscovitch was not able to portray the deep seated consequences on the human psyche, as Dorfman’s work has done, even if these performances do not always capture the deeply disturbed state of the characters in the text. Still, the comparison is worth considering when you see the play, and it certainly is worth seeing.
Death and the Maiden plays at The Gladston Theatre, May 2 to 19, 2012. Telephone 613-233-GLAD.
Death and the Maiden
By Ariel Dorfman
Directed by Craig Walker
Set and costumes by Andrea Robertson Walker
Roberto Miranda…………Paul Rainville
Gerardo Escobar………..Chris Ralph
Paulina Salas……………..Geneviève Sirois
A Plosive Theatre production