by Mike Hoban
Written by Ariel Dorfman, Directed by Steven Maler; Clint Ramos, Scenic and Costume Designer; Jeff Adelberg, Lighting Designer; Arshan Gailus, Sound Designer. Presented by the Commonwealth Shakespeare Company in residence at Babson College, Sorenson Center for the Arts, 231 Forest Street, Wellesley, MA through February 11
It may be early in the theater season, but it’s unlikely that you’re going to see anything this year that will match the sheer intensity of Commonwealth Shakespeare Company’s outstanding production of Death and the Maiden. Director Steven Maler has assembled a top-notch creative team for this political and psychological thriller, which has an all-too-short run (concluding this weekend) at the Sorenson Center Black Box on the Babson campus, the (relatively) new home of CSC.
The play begins ominously, as we see Paulina, a woman in her mid-thirties, reach for a snub-nosed .45 pistol as she hears a strange car pull up in front of her house around midnight. She hears the voice of her husband, Gerardo, congenially bantering with someone outside, just before they drive away. He enters alone, her level of apprehension drops a bit, but there is still an air of tension as the two almost playfully argue over the reason he was late. Paulina, it seems, forgot to repair the spare tire and had inexplicably removed the jack from her husband’s car, so when got a flat on the way home, he was unable to fix it. Luckily for him, the stranger stopped and drove him to his front door.
As it turns out, Gerardo is returning from a meeting with the president of the (unnamed) country, one which has recently adopted democracy following the overthrow of a military dictatorship. He has just been asked to head the investigating commission charged with looking into the crimes of the previous regime, of which his wife herself was a victim – raped and tortured for weeks while she was blindfolded. It is evident that the psychic scars from the brutal ordeal have not healed, and Gerardo’s all too measured approach as to how he will handle the ensuing investigation – without all victims receiving justice – does not sit well with Paulina.
The couple goes to bed for the night, but are soon awoken by a loud banging on the door. Gerardo answers, and it’s Dr. Miranda, the man who drove him home, returning the flat spare that had inadvertently been left in his trunk. Paulina, meanwhile, is in the other room, listening intently, and as we soon learn, recognizes the voice of Dr. Miranda as belonging to the man who raped her 15 years ago. She never once saw his face, but during her torture, he constantly played Schubert’s “Death and the Maiden,” from which the play takes its title.
As the evening is late, Gerardo convinces the doctor to spend the night. When her husband retires, Paulina pistol whips a sleeping Dr. Miranda, drags him to the garage, and ties him to a chair. When her husband arises and sees to his horror what she has done, Paulina announces – at gunpoint – that they are going to try the doctor for his crimes against her – and she will kill herself and the doctor if he does not go along.
And thus begins as taut a psychological drama as you are likely to ever see on stage, as the play is catapulted into a terrifying new dimension. When Gerardo says to her, “You’re – unrecognizable. How can you possibly be this way, talk this way?” , and she coolly answers, gun in hand, “Explain to my husband, Doctor Miranda, what you did to me so I would be this – crazy,” we see how completely committed Paulina is to seeing that “justice” is served.
On one level, there is the obvious question of how, from this moment on, their lives could ever be returned to normal. But there are other questions, both large and small. Is Paulina mad, or is Miranda really the man who inflicted the torture upon her? Does a soulless monster deserve a fair trial? Does one adhere to the law one is sworn to uphold, if doing so means destroying one’s own life? And how does a society repair itself following years of rule by a totalitarian regime? And on top of those questions, there are longstanding conflicts between Gerardo and Paulina that come to the surface, as often happens under extreme duress. That’s a lot to handle in under 100 minutes (no intermission), but director Maler paces the intense narrative perfectly to keep us on the edge of our seats throughout.
The cast is extraordinary, led by Flora Diaz as Paulina. Diaz taps into the very same combination of righteous rage and deranged detachment that enables torturers (as Dr. Miranda may or not be) to continue with their lives while carrying out unspeakable acts against others, and her portrayal is both sympathetic and frightening. Mark Torres is brilliantly unlikable as Dr. Miranda, even as he is being tortured, particularly when he lashes out with poisonous vitriol at Paulina. And Mickey Solis delivers a convincing performance as the conflicted Gerardo, who has his own demons to deal with.
The intimacy of the Sorenson Black Box adds to the intensity of the experience, and the alternately eerie and soothing soundscape created by Arshan Gailus, combined with the lighting design by Jeff Adelberg, perfectly complement Clint Ramos’ spare but effective set. The one slight shortcoming of the play may have been that there seemed to be little ambiguity as to the guilt of Dr. Miranda, but that may be due in part to the committed portrayal of Paulina by Diaz, (or my own cheerleading to see justice served). In any event, this a play well worth seeing, so get tickets before it sells out. For more info, go to: www.commshakes.org