Ariel Dorfman’s play Death and the Maiden calls into question the efficacy of vengeance in a society once run by malice and chaos. Inspired by the Chilean dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet, we are given the story of Paulina Salas. A survivor of political atrocities, Paulina is faced with who she believes to be her captor and torturer. Seeking retribution with her lawyer husband, Gerardo, she is torn between her instincts and evidence. In a democratic regime following a monstrous dictatorship, can the haze of revenge yield a truthful confession? Mel Aravena has adapted Dorfman’s challenging subject matter beautifully, and places a mirror in front of his audience forcing the question: “what would you do?”
Claudia Wit as Paulina Salas delivers an outstanding performance. She effortlessly breathes life into a complex character: a difficult role, it cannot be handled lightly. It requires ferocity, and Wit strikes like a sledgehammer.
With Mel Aravena’s careful direction, Wit moves with the ebbs and flows of Franz Schubert’s masterpiece Death and the Maiden, the play’s namesake. A lengthy quartet, the piece is only briefly used twice throughout the 90 minute production. Wit moves Paulina through her dialogue as if in harmony with the number. This subtle direction emphasizes the impact of her torment, and her desire to control what still consumes her.
Paulina’s husband, Gerardo Escobar, is the voice of reason. A young lawyer newly appointed to a political campaign, he is charged with finding those accused of crimes against humanity. In spite of Paulina’s case, he maintains an unbiased involvement with his work.
Mischa Aravena tackles Gerardo with impressive bravado. Starting in a mode reminiscent of Dick Van Dyke, uncanny levels of wholesomeness and naïveté overpower his performance. Gerardo’s denial and refusal to accept the fact of his wife’s past is a vital aspect of the character’s portrayal, one that Mischa masters early on. As the play progresses, the truth becomes increasingly more elusive, and Mischa’s performance explodes. He offers an honest and heartfelt depiction of a man struggling with his own moral code and the anguish over the suffering of a loved one.
One of my favorite performances comes from Rod McTaggart, who portrays Paulina’s accused Doctor Roberto Miranda. A man with a towering physique, he is capable of portraying both comforting paternal figure and treacherous lech simultaneously. His deep and memorable voice makes his role as threat instantly believable. With such wonderful groundwork, McTaggart takes Miranda and transforms him into a moral conundrum. One moment a terrified victim, the next carefully manipulating his captors. McTaggart subtly shifts between the guilty party and innocent bystander so delicately as to force the audience to question their own cries for his head on a platter. The impact of the entire production hinges on his ability to divide the audience, and he does so perfectly.
Mel Aravena’s direction unified these wonderful performances, creating a powerful production that left the audience speechless. Deliberately avoiding a moral agenda, he retains much of Ariel Dorfman’s intent with the original material. Subtle blocking prevents the play from becoming melodramatic, while his depiction of Paulina evades the over simplistic depiction of a hysterical woman. Though she brandishes a gun, accusing a man of rape and torture with little evidence but the recognition of his voice, Mel Aravena has kept Paulina from becoming a cliché.
This production is a testament to Mel Aravena’s abilities. He has chosen a potent and difficult work to recreate, and done so with aplomb. The skills of his cast and crew have helped mount a masterful adaptation of Ariel Dofrman’s work.