Sunday, September 7, 2014

Death and the Maiden, Latino Theatre Projects

My ticket to Death and the Maiden was also my summons to jury duty. Ariel Dorfman's play conscripts us in a courtroom drama made all the more riveting because the trial is private, not public. In the opening night production by Latino Theatre Projects and directed by Emma Watt, the audience held its collective breath, witnessing and judging as the unspeakable was spoken.

The play is set in a new democracy where dictatorship is an all too recent and vivid memory. It's drawn from Dorfman's experience as a Chilean, but it could, by design, be any country in the birth pains of democracy, where torturers and the tortured, prisoners and the imprisoned, deposed and the silenced, are uneasily trying to figure out what comes next.

Fernando Luna, left, and Tonya Andrews in
the Latino Theatre Projects production of Death
and the Maiden. Photo by Michael Brunk.
What comes next in this story is that Paulina's husband Gerardo is late coming home, and she is alone and anxious. He finally arrives after a kind stranger named Dr. Roberto Miranda stops to help with his flat tire. Gerardo invites him in, with promises of his wife's excellent margaritas. Paulina recognizes the doctor's voice, his skin, his smell, as the doctor who raped and tortured her when she was a political prisoner in the days of the old regime. She knows her reasonable husband will have difficulty believing this of the kind stranger (after all, she may not be quite altogether well). She prosecutes a private trial at gunpoint, with Gerardo functioning as the doctor's defender. 

The three-actor cast is outstanding. Fernando Luna as Dr. Miranda manages to do the nearly impossible—be utterly despicable and loathsome, and at the same time make me want to hear more. There are scenes where he is bound to a chair and gagged, and his eyes give the scenes depth as we hear revelation after revelation.

The one place where I expect the play will only get stronger as the actors feed on the ensemble's energy is in Frank Lawler's performance. He has a wickedly difficult role to play. Gerardo is a lawyer, personally and professionally committed to the rule of law, he has hopes for his country, and his star is rising. He has just returned home from being appointed to head a commission investigating the crimes of the old regime. And he is a husband whose own wife has been harmed by the old regime, to an extent he can only imagine at the beginning of the play. Navigating his principles, hopes, and interests proves tricky. 

His defining feature is reasonableness. And yet, there's an explosive scene where the doctor pokes his fingers right into the sorest spots, and from Gerardo I would have liked to see a little less outrage and dismay, a little more shattering in frustration and pain. It's important to the drama and the ending that Gerardo's hold on his gossamer principles and hopes be very, very tenuous. He is the caged one, and we need to smell his fear over everything he could lose.

Paulina, on the other hand, doesn't have so much to lose, and might have something to gain, depending on the choices Gerardo makes. Tonya Andrews gave a fierce performance, making her character walk a knife's edge between strength and debilitation, decision and resignation, power and mercy. Gerardo gives the play its slipperiness and fragility; Paulina gives the play its gravitas and heartbreak.

Together these three outstanding actors managed to evoke a stew of emotions, base and noble, each of the three characters forcing me to confront the question moment by moment: what would I have done?

Props to everyone involved in the set, lights, and sound. Kristina Hestenes-Stimson's set and costumes and Zanna Paulson's lighting were integral to the show's action and meaning, arrivals and departures, creating the setting's essential privacy. I loved the way director Watt made use of the upstage to make us feel like voyeurs and downstage where she put the action practically in our laps. Sound designer Joshua Blaisdell's job was crucial, as the plot pivots on sound many times, including playback of tape recordings. The timing and functioning in every case was flawless. 

Death and the Maiden is very good theater. It's dramatic, thought-provoking, brilliantly performed, and deeply moving. Go see a play, and make it this one! We enjoyed it so much, we plan to see it again. Shows are Friday and Saturday evenings and Sunday afternoons through September 29, at the Ballard Underground. See you there.


KellyAllen206 said...

I love this review! Thanks for making me want to go, but also analyzing the show with some interesting critiques. Sounds like there are 2 great performances and I am very interested in seeing them. Thanks for your reviews, Greg!

Sweetie the Official Scorer said...

Thanks, Kelly! I hope you do get a chance to see it. Really, there were three great performances; I bet the sparks fly even more over the course of the run. It was pretty darn powerful on opening night! Hope all is well. Cheers!