‘Death and the Maiden’ review: a history of violence

Bag & Baggage's production of Ariel Dorfman's play about confronting the consequences of repression makes more persuasive political analysis than drama

A man bound and gagged. A woman pointing a gun at him. Confess his crime against her, or else.

You can’t ask for a much tenser set up than that. Death and the Maiden keeps the audience wondering throughout: did he do it, and will she do it? One of those questions will be resolved before the show is over.

But although they drive the plot, those aren’t the main questions raised by Ariel Dorfman’s provocative 1990 play now running at The Vault Theatre in Hillsboro. How do people, and by extension society, heal from past violence? Is confession enough? Or confession plus repentance? How about vengeance? Or should we just leave the past buried and move on?

Mandana Khoshnevisan as Paulina and Anthony Green as Roberto in Bag & Baggage Productions’ ‘Death and the Maiden.’ Photo: Casey Campbell Photography.

Dorfman’s play purports to dramatize this recurring conundrum by reducing it to three characters: A vengeful victim, blindfolded, tortured and raped years before by minions of a now-deposed military dictatorship. Her maybe-victimizer, whose voice resembles that of the man who, during the depths of the repression, tortured her to the recorded strains of a string quartet.  Her husband, who happens to be involved in the country’s efforts to confront its repressive past.

But even as the plot, and the ethical arguments, unfold, Dorfman’s script, and this production, leave those characters pretty much where they started. While Death and the Maiden poses some still-urgent questions, here it dutifully proceeds more like a combination formula thriller and a detached classroom ethics debate than an emotionally gripping character drama.

Repetitive Repression

From American revolutionaries to Russian Communists to French Jacobins to Nelson Mandela’s South African compatriots to various war crimes tribunals from Nuremberg to the Balkans, humans have tried many answers to the question of past state violence. That includes the many South and Central American dictatorships that bloodied their way through the 20th century — including Chile, where Dorfman was living when the military destroyed seized power, with crucial help from United States intelligence and military forces directed by Republican president Richard Nixon and his Machiavellian sidekick Henry Kissinger. The Argentine-born Dorfman was serving as a cultural adviser to the democratically elected Chilean government and only fortuitously missed being at the presidential palace on the night the military attacked it.

Decades of repression, including the depredations described in Dorfman’s play, followed. (Bag & Baggage’s characteristically informative study guide provides a good intro to some of this horrid history, as does Michael Sproles’s ArtsWatch preview.) Dorfman, who now teaches theater in the US, wrote the play during his long exile.

Then democracy gradually returned, and with it some excruciating questions. What to do with the perpetrators, who’d granted themselves permanent amnesty (enforced by the military) before they left? How can victims (or at least those that survived) and victimizers now live side by side? And how can a traumatized nation heal, if that’s even possible, the wounds they left?

Those are political questions. Drama can contribute to addressing them by showing us characters confronting these issues, and making us feel how they grapple and resolve — or fail to resolve — them.

Flat Characters

But Dorfman’s characters are more archetypes than people. Dr. Roberto Miranda represents the notion that his unnamed Latin American country should just forget what happened and move on.

The lawyer, Gerardo Escobar, named to a national commission to investigate the dictatorship’s abuses (which he apparently escaped), represents the idea that if you know the truth about sins — whether political or personal — that truth will make you free. This being mainly Catholic South America, truth might emerge through rule of law and confession — tribunals that allow perpetrators to admit their crimes and thereby bring some healing, or at least closure, to the victims and society at large.

And Paulina Salas represents the survivors who aren’t quite sure what they need from their victimizers. Confession? Repentance? Vengeance?

Effective drama would show these characters changing as they face these questions — and each other. The doctor, for example, might move from carefree and secure in his privilege (whether he was actually a torturer or just a member of the monied classes that supported the generals), to frightened to indignant to self righteous.

Paulina might evolve from vulnerable victim who’s learned to conceal — but not heal — her trauma over 15 years, to table-turning triumph, to questioning whether what she thought she wanted is actually enough. Abused people often become abusers, so we should believe her deplorable but understandable flirtation with cruelty.

And Gerardo might gradually lose his certainty — about his belief in truth alone leading to healing, about his wife’s character, even the foundations of their marriage and the possibility of national reconciliation.

Nathan Dunkin as Gerardo in Bag&Baggage Productions’ ‘Death and the Maiden.’ Photo: Casey Campbell Photography.

Unfortunately, neither Dorfman’s script nor these performances deliver such dramatic development. We don’t see Paulina’s transition from wounded to wrathful to uncertain. Mandana Khoshnevisan’s declamatory performance starts out with righteous indignation and unvaryingly plays that steely note throughout, missing both genuine vulnerability that would make us emotionally connect to Paulina, and the iciness that we and the other characters need to believe she’s capable of to make her threats real. (Miscast here, she’d be ideal, as my companion pointed out, in a better role like the embittered widow Asakir in Tawfiq al-Hakim’s 1950 classic Song of Death, a tighter, stronger play that Death and the Maiden resembles in more than just title.)

Anthony Green’s Doctor Miranda (literally stifled by a gag for much of the play) displays little but innocence, which works for most of the plot. But we never glimpse the possibility of a wily, then terrified monster beneath the facade. Nathan Dunkin’s Gerardo (the character probably closest to Dorfman’s own experience and therefore maybe most believable) earnestly portrays a do-gooder desperately torn between his love for his wife and their life together, and his growing recognition that love and truth alone may not be enough to save a marriage — or a nation.

But if we’re to really care about these people as more than talking points, all performances needed more modulated emotional progression, and even that might not have been enough to supply the character development the script omits.

It also lacks dramatic tension, despite that promising set up. Rather than starting in medias res with a bound and gagged victim with a gun to his head (as this review did), Dorfman first ploddingly gets the doctor in the couple’s beach house, introduces all the characters, and painstakingly discloses contextual details. Maybe he was trying to contrast the peaceful present with the horrors of the past, but the B&B design team led by scenic designer Tyler Buswell smartly accomplishes that without a word. Jeffery A. Smith’s projected beach panorama evokes the false placidity of a prosperous present, as do the midcentury modern decor by props master/ dramaturg Renee Zipp and the sussurating waves conjured by sound designer Tiffany Rousseau.

The tradeoff: the spacious setting can’t convey the claustrophobia that might have boosted the tension. Nor does Cassie Greer’s direction (she might have made more of the gun being set down on a bench where it could be seized, for example), though otherwise she keeps our eyes and the story moving as much as the flawed script permits.

But as my attention wandered amid Dorfman’s repetitive dialogue, I noticed audience members nodding off in the sunny day matinee performance. Everything that happened during the first 20 minutes or so could have been worked in via dialogue after the gun appears and commands our attention as well as that of the three characters. And after that, the plot advances, but the characters don’t.

For many, the script’s dramatic shortcomings may be less important than its clear deployment of ethical and political dilemmas, and Dorfman’s unsettling suggestion that whatever course we choose to address the sins of the past, they’ll always haunt us.

And yet, if we’re ever to escape from humanity’s repeated repressions, art may provide a path. If as the old slogan claims, the personal is political, then stories that show us people actually changing, or even trying and tragically failing to change, may be the only way to change the world. That’s why it’s welcome to see playwrights and Oregon theater companies producing politically pertinent plays. Drama is uniquely equipped to make us feel that kind of change, and it’s too bad that Death and the Maiden doesn’t.

It instead resembles the famous second movement of the Schubert quartet it’s named after: a series of variations on the famous deathly theme. Paulina, and by extension her country, seems unable to change her affect, or to escape her horrific memories which, like Schubert’s ever-recurring theme, keep coming back in different guises, like a nightmare that never ends. Alas, while that static scheme may not be dramatically satisfying, it might be humanity’s tragic truth.

Death and the Maiden runs through March 25 at the Vault Theater, 350 E Main Street, Hillsboro. Tickets and schedule information here or call the box office, 503-345-9590.

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