ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — “Death and the Maiden” reflects a specific time and place in playwright Ariel Dorfman’s experience, but the bold questions and challenges it raises are at the heart of Greek tragedy as well. The production at the Vortex Theatre is somewhat uneven, but the drama maintains its power.
Born in Argentina, Dorfman later became a citizen of Chile, but he fled to the U. S. after the military junta of Augusto Pinochet in 1973. Seventeen years later, with Pinochet gone, Dorfman returned to Chile and wrote this play. The dramatist says “Death and the Maiden” is set in “a country that is probably Chile but could be any country that has given itself a democratic government just after a long period of dictatorship.” Through it’s suspense plot, the playwright portrays his country’s sufferings in the character of Paulina Escobar. Fifteen years earlier she had been brutally tortured and raped by agents of the dictator. One man, a doctor, combined culture and sadism, sending electric current through her body while playing the Schubert string quartet that gives the play it ironic title. Though blindfolded through her entire ordeal, she never forgot the men who abused her. Paulina is married to Gerardo, an ambitious lawyer who has just been appointed to serve on a commission to examine the murders of the previous regime, a tentative step toward national healing. By chance, Roberto meets a Dr. Roberto Miranda whom he invites to spend the night at the Escobar beach house. Pauline listens carefully to his voice and is convinced Roberto is her tormenter. She knocks him out, ties him to a chair, threatens him with a pistol, and demands a confession. Roberto calls her accusations “fantasies of a diseased mind” while Gerardo questions Paulina’s taking the law in her own hands and acts as Roberto’s lawyer. I will not give away any more.
Director Craig Stoebling designed a utilitarian and realistic set and effectively provides the sounds of the sea outside. However, I found his actors mismatched. Handsome Dru Ruebush, a Vortex newcomer with impressive credits, did not convince me in the difficult role of Gerardo. He looks the part, but many of his gestures and vocal pauses felt uncomfortable. Harry Zimmerman is stronger as Roberto. Although he spends much of the play tied to a chair—in his underwear—he conveys the appropriate range of emotions and keeps us guessing. The play belongs to Laurie Lister as Paulina. Her fine performance subtly suggests hints of madness that resulted from her character’s terrible suffering, yet she is eerily calm through most of her scenes. Lister is always believable as her character personifies questions of revenge, forgiveness, punishment, and justice.
In an “Afterword” to his play, Dorfman asks, “How do we keep the past alive without becoming its prisoner? How do we forget it without risking its repetition in the future?” Good questions.
“Death and the Maiden” by Ariel Dorfman plays at The Vortex Theatre, 2004½ Central, SE, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 6 p.m. through June 1. $12. Reservations 247-8600