Sunday, May 6, 2012

Theatre review: "Death and the Maiden" at Off the Wall Productions

Chilean author Ariel Dorfman’s play Death and the Maiden debuted more than 20 years ago and has remained with us ever since. Likewise remaining, still haunting the fearful corridors of our lives, are the issues it raises and the questions it asks. They deal with government-sanctioned torture, guilt and retribution. Although Dorfman’s native land and its brutal history provoked him into writing this, he knew and we know that such evil still thrives. We have no further to look than the twisted souls of our own people at Abu Ghraib and the inventors of such euphemisms as “extraordinary rendition.”

Such themes seethe and reach out into the shadows just beyond the stage in the current Off The Wall Productions' presentation of the play, staged with unsettling reality by director Maggie Balsley and performed with sure integrity by her cast.

The essence of the plot does not seem complicated and knowing it in advance can heighten understanding how well Dorfman wrote his characters. Paulina Salas, married to Gerardo Escobar, was abducted, tortured and raped 15 years ago during her nation’s dictatorship. She never saw the face of the state agent responsible for the brutality, but when Dr. Roberto Miranda accidentally visits their home, hearing Miranda’s voice, Paulina is convinced he was that agent. Violently, she intends for him to pay dearly.

Dorfman inventively adds to the complications by having Gerardo a human rights lawyer on the verge of a significant career in the new government seeking closure to the ugly past. As if he might stand between those excesses and the looming present excesses of his vengeful wife.

Throughout the tense, uninterrupted 90 or so minutes of this experience you may never know for certain if Miranda is really the guilty one. And director Balsley as well as Ken Bolden in that role excellently leave that open.

Also open is the question if Paulina, or anyone who has suffered as she has, can remain sane and is capable of reconciliation. Unfortunately Dorfman does not explore this or other emotional or philosophical ramifications, dwelling primarily on exposition and on action.

He does, however, in one telling scene, have Miranda talk about the seduction and contagion of unbridled power. And, as the doctor expounds on how he descended lower and lower into depraved depths, the ghosts of Joseph Mengele and his Nazi kin hover in the darkness.

Ken Bolden’s performance as Miranda stands out with complex definition, sometimes creepy, sometimes sniveling, sometimes validly assertive. Mark D. Staley’s take on Gerardo has many good moments, able to show the man’s doubts and insecurities, as well as moments of reasonableness. Adrienne Wehr’s version of Paulina most of the time seems the least dimensional, as if an absence of rationality distorts her ability to even communicate clearly.

Director Balsley uses film projections for some scenes at the start of the play and at the end. I’m sure they have symbolic meaning, although I find them confusing, especially one which makes it look as if the play had ended when it has not. I suppose you could read into that a suggestion that torture, cruelty and residual guilt have never left us.

With these moments and many more you will definitely come away with much to ponder.

Death and the Maiden continues through May 19th at Off the Wall Productions,147 N.Main Street, Washington,PA. 
or (724)873-3576 

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