Death and The Maidenby Ariel Dorfman. Directed by Normi Noel.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
Marc Geller and Deann Halper; photo provided
"Is it true that you did this. . .what they accuse you of?"
Questions. Questions. An inquest of unanswerable questions. Think of the torture. Think of the pain. Imagine, if you can, the absolute agony of constant rape, of assault and battery and of insults piled upon insults. And the questions. Always the questions.
Then add to the mix the strength to resist the humiliation, the power to fight the miserable treatment and then the resolve to ultimately face down your attackers, to annoy them until they have only two choices: kill you or release you.
This is the back-story of Paulina Salas, Mrs. Gerardo Escobar, a well-off woman who has lived this scenario and survived it in Ariel Dorfman’s powerhouse play "Death and The Maiden" now playing at New Stage Performing Arts Center in downtown Pittsfield, Massachusetts. In this three act play, presented in one single unrelenting act in this production, Paulina and her husband come face to face with the memory of just such an experience when a stranger enters their home. Dr. Roberto Miranda enters their seacoast home in Chile without an actual invitation at an hour that is most insane. He is cool, calm and unflappable, even after Paulina attacks him in his sleep, straps him into a chair and stuffs his mouth full of her underpants. Paulina has begun the process of reversing her own horrific history. And that’s just the beginning of this play.
In this spartan production three actors take on the monumental forces that Dorfman has created for his principal players. While it is reasonable to assume that two professional Equity actors playing the husband and the doctor would carry off the show it is the non-Equity, semi-pro who carries it off the planet and into the stratosphere of theatricality. There are qualities in this play’s roles that cannot be overlooked but can be mishandled. Some of those make their presence known which is just too bad–too bad for the play and for the audience also.
Dorfman wants us to become aware of our own parts in the miscarriages of justice that took place in his country in the 1970s and in other places around the world in other decades also. He wants to hold up a mirror to our faces so that, in the worst of moments, we can be aware of our complicity. His script calls for mirrors to descend and to reflect our own shock at what has been played out before us. Or perhaps our own lack of shock. But he wants us to understand that he knows we are guilty even if we can hide it well.
In this production that mirror is only really held up to the two men in the play. Marc Geller plays Miranda, the man who could be guilty, the man who could have performed the atrocities of which he is semi-silently accused. Geller is good at sounding innocent and looking guilty at the same time. This is just what the part requires. He is also good at presenting a picture of the off-base contriver caught red-handed at his game. It is this quality that makes Miranda easy to suspect from the outset.
Gary Cookson plays Gerardo, the amiable husband, who knows his wife has had a period of time that is responsible for her lapses of sanity. Cookson has an easy manner and a soft-side that renders him powerless in scenes where need to exult more for his wife, to intervene more for her sake. There are actually moments when it appears as though the actor is more confused than his character by the play’s twists and turns. If there is a weak link in the company it is Cookson who cannot hold a candle to Geller who, in turn, is little more than molten quicksand in the light cast by non-Equity actress Deann Halper as Paulina.
Halper has the hardest role, yet perhaps not as hard as one might suspect for her character is single-minded and always interested in the direct line, the direct action, the active verb in life. She has a gun which she wields like a cake server, using it as a tool of intimidation ("misbehave, no cake!" seems to be the underlying verbal thrust to her lines) whenever possible. Halper approaches this woman not as a virago but as a virgin protecting her sensitivity. She never spins out of control. She never gives quarter. She always seems to be in control even when we can see and hear that control is out of her. The many shades of behavior and language that pervade the part are given legitimacy in Halper’s presentation of them. Her language is the language of the gutter, yet her circumstances are those of the elite. In Halper’s expert hands these elements are never in question and never available out of proper order.
Normi Noel has directed for physical reaction. She seems to want us to feel the pain Paulina feels. She apparently needs us to sense through our pores the agony of defeat that any man would feel at the poor treatment and humiliation that Miranda suffers at Paulina’s hands. What she would like us to understand through Gerardo is outside my ken. The author gives us a final scene that shows us clearly how Paulina is forced to live in the aftermath of her actions, but the director obfuscates here, leaving us wondering how far these people have taken their dangerous games. While Noel has done a neat job in so many instances with the text and the conflict, she leaves us without any real answers in that final scene. It’s a pity because in that moment there is truth and comprehension, but for local audiences there will only be a certain confusion and a sense of disappointment.
Aaron P. Mastin has provided a set that shouts Middle America for the most part and gives us nothing of upscale Chile in the ‘90s. Robert Allen’s costumes say little and in Cookson’s case don’t fit. Ben Elliott takes some awkward chances with his lighting design but loses the edgey battle with the final scene. His sound design is brilliant, however. It truly helps to make this a good evening of theater.
And it is a good evening of theater. Flawed, yes, but so is a fine dinner in a good restaurant that just can’t resist adding live music to the mix. "Death and The Maiden" with its references to Schubert and Mozart is classical theater for a modern age and as such requires what this show is lacking, players who are all equals in ability and talent who can make the world rock and roll with a combination of shock and riot. This production only gives us surprise and a mild movement of sand. It’s still a fascinating picture and with Halper is worthy of viewing. After all some of the surprise is shocking and the body in the sand is a riot of rotten secrets.
Death and The Maiden plays at New Stage Performing Arts Center, located above the Beacon Cinema at 55 North Street in Pittsfield, MA through July 1. For information and tickets call the box office at 413-418 0999.