Death and the Maiden at the Williams MainStage

“This production,” reads the program of Williamstheatre’s staging of Ariel Dorfman’s Death and the Maiden, “is dedicated to the hundreds and hundreds of thousands of people the world over whose suffering at the hands of their oppressors cannot ever really be documented, and therefore will never be acknowledged truly, openly, and without fear.” This question of acknowledgement is the core of the play, in terms of both the characters’ individual lives and the brutally oppressive society in which they find themselves.

The setting is an unspecified country in which a military dictatorship has recently been overthrown by a new, supposedly democratic regime. Geraldo Escobar, played thoughtfully by Jason Greenberg ’01, is a prominent lawyer who has just been appointed by the President to lead a commission investigating the fates of the victims of the previous regime- except that for fear of potential repercussions, the government has no plans to publish the commission’s findings, or to punish those responsible for the crimes.

This fact is immensely disturbing to Geraldo’s wife Paulina (Phoebe Geer ’01), who was herself the victim of some sort of imprisonment, the details of which are not elucidated until the final act of the play. Late one night the couple receives a visit from the oily Dr. Roberto Miranda (Rob Seitelman ’01), a new friend of Geraldo’s. Paulina, overhearing the conversation of the two men, realizes that the doctor is the same one who was responsible for inflicting the worst of the torture upon her during her imprisonment. While he is asleep she knocks him unconscious, binds him to a chair, and holds him as her prisoner for the rest of the play, while she grapples with her desire to enact revenge upon him.

The set, designed by Hugh Landwehr ’01 and Julie Sandy ’00, is deliberately disorienting. The traditional seating area of the MainStage remains entirely unused, except for a large chunk of seats, which has been removed to make room for the Escobars’ deck as it juts out from the stage. Instead, to reach the seats, members of the audience must climb onto the stage and one of two platforms of risers tightly crowded with folding chairs, which face each other across the performance space. While adding an interesting three-dimensionality to the performance, this treatment creates a difficulty, in that it is nearly impossible to block a piece staged like this so that all the actors’ faces can be seen at once; however, director David Eppel handles this glitch skillfully, and we spend a minimal amount of time gazing at the backs of the actors’ heads. In the absence of backdrops, two huge, simple white curtains are used to frame the Escobars’ living room, and help suggest a hot, tropical climate.

This illusion is furthered by the lighting choices of Ellen Jones ’02 and John Finkbeiner ’00, the highlight of which is undoubtedly a single blue-white light, which filtered through some sort of screen and projected against the outer curtain is brilliantly evocative of moonlight sifting through palm trees. Aside from these skillful and well-chosen touches, the set and lighting appear spare, an impression which, accentuated by the simple and neutral costumes designed by Theater Department Lecturer Deb Brothers and Ellen Bognar ’01, allows the drama of the play to capture our attention without distractions.

And capture it does; we quickly find ourselves caught up in the three characters, each of whom struggles to resolve the conflict created by Paulina’s desire for revenge in the most personally advantageous way. Phoebe Geer’s Paulina is a woman nearly destroyed by the horror of the experience she has undergone, desperately hoping to be able to free herself from its grip by obtaining the written confession of the man who perpetrated it. Geer does an excellent job of conveying the profound depth of the loathing which her character feels for the doctor and everything he represents, loathing combined with rage and, though she now holds her tormentor in her power, residual fear. She wants for herself what her country’s government continues to withhold: acknowledgement of her suffering and condemnation of the man who was the author of it. Her husband, though he loves her and wishes to help her, is somewhat more equivocal, and this is the source of the tension between them.

Greenberg is powerful in the role of Escobar, clearly revealing the terrible extent to which the man torn between love for his wife, disbelief in his friend’s wrongdoing, and the desire to appease Paulina’s demand for justice without necessitating the grim consequences he senses she has in mind. The two are particularly strong in their scenes with just each other; in these scenes, we clearly see the conflicts between them, the scars left by their treatment under the previous regime and their own fear that these conflicts and scars will do what the regime itself failed to do, namely drive them apart.

Rob Seitelman is terrific in the role of the doctor, refusing to give the audience a one-dimensional villain to despise, but portraying instead a man confused and appalled by his treatment, clinging tenaciously to his pride and asserting his innocence even in the face of direct threats from Paulina. There is an effortless continuity between his portrayal of the doctor in the scene before Paulina imprisons him, and that of the doctor as a man robbed of his liberty and his control over his own life.

The only possible flaw in the acting is a certain tendency in both Geer and Greenberg to deliver too many of their lines at the same emotional pitch, with the same intonations and emphasis; this may be as much the fault of a script that dictates the characters remain in constant, unrelenting conflict, as it is a reflection of the actors’ individual choices.

It is undoubtedly due to this very same aspect of the script, namely, its many scenes of argument after argument, that the play tends to drag a little. Nearly three hours of argument and intense conflict is tiresome to watch, particularly when neither the scene nor the actors nor the things about which they are in conflict, change. Death and the Maiden is nevertheless quite a good production, thoughtfully handled and well acted, whose issues about the acknowledgement of suffering and brutality are important to consider.

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