One can respect a play and hate it at the same time. Drawn in to the premise completely, you can ultimately feel manipulated, and finally angry. Ariel Dorfman's Death and the Maiden is just such a play--capable of awakening the darkest revenge fantasies and then convincing its audience that there is no other way to feel about the events depicted. But despite a few serious problems with the Theatre on Broadway's production, the regional premiere is riveting--sure to leave the viewer tangled in emotions and gasping for the fresh air of reason.
Dorfman's psychological thriller begins as a military dictatorship in an unspecified Latin American country has just ended. Paulina, a survivor of political torture and rape, lives with her husband, Gerardo, in constant bickering but mutual affection. Into this uneasy environment a stranger comes. He had given Gerardo a lift when he had a flat tire, and he returns in the middle of the night to congratulate him on his recent appointment as an investigator into the murder of "disappeared" persons.
Paulina listens outside the window to Roberto's voice, his laugh, his phrasing. She recognizes him as the doctor who raped her repeatedly and decided how much voltage she could take before fainting. Playwright Dorfman doesn't go into explicit detail, but anyone who has read of fascist torture in Latin America (or who has seen Death Wish) has a pretty good idea of what she must have suffered.
Paulina has a gun, and with that gun, she turns the tables on her oppressor. Her mild, ineffectual husband begs her to let him go, even tries to defy her. But she means business, and Gerardo soon learns Paulina will kill Roberto before she lets her husband untie him. So the couple reach an agreement: If Roberto confesses, Paulina will let him go.
Dorfman at first lets us remain unsure about whether Roberto is the same doctor who tortured Paulina--after all, she was blindfolded during her brutal incarceration. But in the end there is little doubt that he's the one, the Mengele of the local police. He deserves to be tortured as she was--volt for volt, rape for rape. He deserves to die, since he did this by his own confession to 94 people.
Significantly, the play does a good job of developing empathy for the protagonist--in fact, for all women who have ever been subjected to sexual torment. The acute damage and the fiery rage such abuse engenders does need to be understood. But the trouble is, Dorfman leaves us mired in it. The one person who speaks for reason, the rule of law and temperate behavior--the husband--is paternalistic and removed somewhat from his own anger. The doctor even suggests that Gerardo isn't much of a man, since he hasn't offered to remove the rapist's genitalia as any "real" man would.
Roberto's perverse challenge is actually one of the best moments in the production, because actor Paul Page as Gerardo turns the mild-mannered husband into a raging vigilante at this point in a brilliant reversal of reason and emotion. Dorfman hasn't written the part to be entirely sympathetic, but Page's work throughout is convincing; his is the one character that evolves during the course of the play. From the ineffectual intellectual to the angry husband to the disgusted citizen, Page parries Paulina's every argument with growing insight and feeling.
Though Kristine Ryker is remarkably intense, she gives basically a one-note performance--instead of layers of feeling, she projects only seething anger. We ought to be able to feel vulnerability, strength, shrewdness, sexual frustration and, finally, moral superiority--it's all written into the script. We believe the play but not the performance, because Ryker doesn't carry the emotional authority the role requires--and, as a result, never convinces us that she lived through these horrors.
Stephen Maestas has moments of absolute brilliance as the evil doctor. He is so cagey, so vain, so frightened, so smart and so sick all at once that you're left thinking that vermin like this deserve anything they get. But whether he deserves it or not, does the victim have the right to carry out her own sentence?
We are left not knowing if Paulina will kill the doctor. We go home and decide. We have been told that the law will not do its work, that Roberto will get off scot-free. We also know he will never repent, never change. Revenge seems most suitable. My immediate reaction: Kill the creep.
But Dorfman never really raises the right issues. We ought, for example, to at least think of Paulina. If she kills Roberto, she becomes like him and linked to him forever. But Dorfman never questions the salutary effects of revenge, though the whole history of the human race cries out against any form of vengeance but that which is taken by the state in an orderly fashion--the solemn judgment of the people against the criminal by the rule of law. When individuals take revenge, blood vendettas may lead inexorably to murders, perhaps even to wars and, eventually, genocide.
Death and the Maiden is an important play, but because it lacks wisdom, it is not a great play. The justification of revenge as a substitute for justice chills the spirit even as it numbs the conscience.
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