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The tortured becomes the torturer in ‘Death and the Maiden’

From left, Nicole Phelps holds a gun on Rod Harrison and Angelo Jaramillo during rehearsal for “Death and the Maiden” at Teatro Paraguas in Santa Fe. (Courtesy of Melissa Dominguez)

From left, Nicole Phelps holds a gun on Rod Harrison and Angelo Jaramillo during rehearsal for “Death and the Maiden” at Teatro Paraguas in Santa Fe. (Courtesy of Melissa Dominguez)

SANTA FE, N.M. — Paulina Salas uses a gun and a passion for revenge to extract a confession from a man whom she believes years ago presided over her torture when she was held as a political prisoner.

But is it the same man? She never saw his face, but says she recognizes his voice; but don’t both voices and memories alter over the years?

Nicole Phelps, right, portrays a character in "Death and the Maiden" who has tied up and hooded the man, played by Rod Harrison, who she believes was her torturer when she was held as a political prisoner. (Courtesy of Melissa Dominguez)

Nicole Phelps, right, portrays a character in “Death and the Maiden” who has tied up and hooded the man, played by Rod Harrison, who she believes was her torturer when she was held as a political prisoner. (Courtesy of Melissa Dominguez)

The play itself is ambiguous, but Rick Vargas, director of the current production of “Death and the Maiden” at Teatro Paraguas, said actors need details to fuel their work, so they came to their own conclusion about who the real torturer was.

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He’s not telling what they decided, but he advised, “At the very end, there’s a little mystery there. You’ve got to keep your ears open for clues.”

The play also does not name the country where this takes place, but it’s pretty clear it’s referring to events in Chile, Vargas said.

After all, Ariel Dorfman, who wrote the psychological thriller in 1991, had served as a cultural advisor to President Salvador Allende up until the 1973 coup by Gen. Agosto Pinochet and left the country afterward.

“But someone could probably do it with a Slavic accent and put it in Eastern Europe,” Vargas said. “That’s the beauty of some of these plays.”

“Death and the Maiden,” whose story covers a 48-hour period, is “probably one of the most physical plays, and emotionally intense and violent as far as the assumption of physical violence that I’ve ever been involved in,” he said.

He was attracted to directing it – this is his directing debut for a full-length play, although he’s directed some shorter pieces – because of the turnaround involved.

It’s a woman in the role of torturer and interrogator, instead of the usual man in such a role.

“I think this is a play that goes down to the very primalness of human want or need … . She needs her self-respect back, but she gets it through vengeance,” Vargas said.

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The play’s action gets underway when Dr. Roberto Miranda (played by Rod Harrison) shows up at Salas’ (Nicole Phelps) door after he rescued her husband, Gerardo Escobar (Angelo Jaramillo), whose car broke down.

To complicate matters, Escobar has just been appointed chairman of the unnamed country’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

And he’s not entirely convinced his wife is right – he actually acts as Miranda’s lawyer in a mock trial staged by Salas to determine his guilt.

Nicole Phelps, left, and Rod Harrison are shown in a scene from “Death and the Maiden” being presented at Teatro Paraguas. (Courtesy of Melissa Dominguez)

Nicole Phelps, left, and Rod Harrison are shown in a scene from “Death and the Maiden” being presented at Teatro Paraguas. (Courtesy of Melissa Dominguez)

Vargas said that, after he read the play, he knew he had to make sure whatever actress plays Salas has to be willing to do cruel things onstage in a believable way. Phelps fit the bill, he said.

A former member of Chicago’s Urban Theater Company, Vargas praised his actors but added that he sometimes feels as if he needs an interpreter to tell them what he’s looking for. “I’m thinking about movement, justification, their intent. I get a couple of things mashed up in my head and it comes out … . I really have to be sure to articulate my ideas,” he said.

While his first passion still is acting, Vargas said that he would like to direct again.

Adding that he probably has taken part in some 50 productions himself, he added, “I understand what actors are going through.”

He said that, for the spring season, he’s pushing for a post-Apocalyptic version of the play adapted from the John Steinbeck novel “Of Mice and Men.” Stay tuned to see if he succeeds.

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