Last week, the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to Tunisia’s National Dialogue Quartet, a group comprised of human rights activists, lawyers and others, for their contributions to the country’s transition to democracy. The Arab Spring started in Tunisia, whose dictator was sent into exile in 2011. Since then, the country has become democratic even as other Arab Spring countries have sunk into chaos and authoritarianism.
Death and the Maiden, the Duke City Repertory Theatre production which premiered at The Cell Theatre last week is very resonant in today’s world. The play is set in an unnamed Latin American country and stars only three characters: a lawyer, his wife and a doctor. The country’s president has just appointed the lawyer as the leader of a commission investigating human rights violations during the previous regime, a 17 year long dictatorship. The country is now a fledgling democracy where citizens are attempting to come to terms with the horrors of the past.
The play, by Argentine-Chilean writer Ariel Dorfman, made its debut in 1991. 24 years later, its continued relevance is both its strength and its albatross. Audience members may enjoy the elaborate mind games played by the characters—whose morality and mental stability are often called into question—even as they wish the themes didn’t ring so true.
Gerardo Escobar (Ezra Colón) and Dr. Roberto Miranda (John Hardy) meet when Gerardo gets stuck on the side of the road with car troubles and Dr. Miranda comes to his aid. Back at home, Gerardo—the newly appointed commission leader—discusses his new position with his wife, Paulina (Amelia Ampuero), who will need to be at his side publicly. Privately, though, she has a mysterious condition and the possibility of a relapse looms over them.
Well past midnight, Dr. Miranda arrives unannounced, having realized who Gerardo is and wishing to offer further help. He speaks of “shut[ting] the door on the divisions and hatred of the past” though his motives are opaque. Paulina is not convinced of his sincerity. Before long, Dr. Miranda is gagged, tied to a chair and invited to confess the crimes he committed during the previous regime, the many victims of which included Paulina.
Or, perhaps they have not included her. It is suggested that Dr. Miranda may not have committed those basest of crimes. Death and the Maiden, like other plays of the past several decades such as Oleanna (David Mamet) and Doubt: A Parable (John Patrick Shanley), forces its viewers to study its clues as the story unfolds. Did he or didn’t he? It’s up to the viewers to analyze the investigation and draw conclusions from it, which makes audience members perhaps a little uncomfortable, but thoroughly engrossed participants in the workings of the play.
The Duke City Rep staging, directed by Katie Becker-Colón, heightens that lack of comfort by presenting a tight psychological space, with ghostly white walls and partitions suggesting an interrogation room rather than a family’s living room. D’Vaughn Agu designed the sets and costumes while Chesapeake Dalrymple handled lighting. The few props are emblematic: booze, a video camera, a gun. Becker-Colón has wisely chosen a minimalist approach, downplaying action and instead letting the actors’ expressions provide whatever clues the audience receives.
That is especially true when it comes to Mr. Hardy, who is stuck with a (pretty unconvincing) gag in his mouth for a good portion of the first act. As accusations fly, he is left to react to them, to try to convey both his shock and his innocence entirely with his eyes. Later, he is filmed in close-up, his visage projected onto one of those white walls. His face is a contortion of shadows, hurt eyes and razor-sharp cheekbones, a tool well designed to heighten the viewer’s uncertainty.
Another of the production’s weapons is Ms. Ampuero’s voice, which has a calm, lilting waver that seems to hide something. The role of Paulina is a tremendously difficult one—it requires simultaneous strength and despair, volatility and intelligence, conviction and duplicity—and Ampuero excels in it. Mr. Colón plays the comparably straightforward character of Gerardo ably, if with less vocal dynamism.
The play’s title comes from Franz Schubert’s “String Quartet no. 14 in D minor,” which Paulina’s tormenter used to woo his victims into a sense of trust. It was composed in 1824—the same year that Schubert wrote in a letter, “think, I say, of a man whose brightest hopes have come to nothing, to whom love and friendship are but torture.” Dorfman’s play mutates that sentiment into a poignant and frustratingly pertinent work of art.