Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Review of "Death and the Maiden" at the Curio Theatre, published in Edge Philadelphia

While the American media seethes over Bush’s commutation of Scooter Libby’s sentence (and before that, Ford’s exculpation of Nixon), our news outlets devote considerably less attention to the pardoning of crimes perpetrated by the world’s more brutal regimes. The question in most of these countries is the moral theme that drives Ariel Dorfman’s play Death and the Maiden: “When the same judges who excused a government’s behavior now sit on the same benches to grant pardons, what happens to the criminals?”

With a script filled with heady political discourse, ambiguous ethical dilemmas, and three characters whose past and motivations he stains with disturbing moral complexities, Dorfman doesn’t make his play easy for any cast or director to stage. Yet Gay Carducci’s skillful direction and the superior talents of Curio Theatre’s cast creates a forceful and emotionally stirring production that seemingly makes short work out of Death and the Maiden.

Dorfman’s play takes place in an unnamed country still emerging from the remnants of a brutal dictatorship into the relative tranquility of democracy. Human rights lawyer Gerard Endawe (Jerry Rudasill) has accepted a recent appointment to head an official commission, one dedicated to investigate and uncover the truth about crimes committed by the former government.

He and his wife Paulina (Erika Hicks) hold a particular stake in the matter. While both sided with the opposition, she was imprisoned, tortured, and raped for her participation, and has yet to recover fully.

A chance roadside encounter—a flat tire without a spare—brings him into contact with the Good Samaritan Dr. Miranda (Paul Kuhn), who drives him home.

Paulina overhears them talking, and immediately believes that she recognizes Miranda’s voice as that of the doctor who prolonged the life of her fellow captives, assisting in their torture, and who had even raped her. Taking her husband’s gun, she binds Miranda, and through the course of an evening, works him over, both to extract a confession of his guilt and enact the vengeance that will allow her to finally move forward with her life.

From a seemingly awkward start that downplays the level of trust and genuine affection between the married couple, Carducci strikes a balance between the interests of all three characters. He skillfully escalates and draws out the tension between each link in the triangle, effectively highlighting the moral ambiguities and potential evidence revealed in Dorfman’s play: Gerard once promised to avenge Paulina, Miranda’s fondness for Schubert (the music played while she was tortured), and Paulina’s own longstanding rancor that suddenly finds a convenient, though much needed outlet.

Hick’s conveys a searing embodiment of her character’s pain, while at the same time showing the internal struggle between her desire to move forward and her uncertainty over what—violence or forgiveness—will best make that possible. As Gerard, Rudasill gave the evening’s most intense performance, that of a man walking through the minefield of his wife’s past, while trying to balance the interests of their future (his really) against the absurdity of the painful dilemma in which she’s placed him.

And while Hick’s sense of outrage tips the scales for many in the audience (who nearly cheer when she strikes or threatens Miranda), Kuhn’s brilliantly subtle innocence never allows them to sit in definitive judgment of his character. The question “Did he or didn’t he?” drives the play’s plot, and while the script offers hints, Kuhn’s spellbinding performance reveals nothing.

Kuhn’s set design-in-the-round even amplifies this by encouraging judgment, placing jury boxes of seats nearly inside the Endawe’s home, while Jared Reed’s sound design eerily accentuates the seaside location, a pacific background noise of waves crashing on the shore that creates a perfect contrast for the symphony of violence Paulina inflicts.

Who should forgive, forget, or do either? Will purges following regime change—democratic or otherwise—amount to any good or sense of justice achieved?

Curio’s production obliquely references South Africa, both in mentioning Soweto and transposing the “Escobar’s” from Dorfman’s original script into the “Endawe’s” of this production. If they intentionally specified this location, it’s only gives more reason to applaud the craft in their production.

After nearly half a century of human rights abuses, South Africa’s new government purposefully refrained from policies of redistribution and revenge against the former regime. But like Paulina’s character laments, how fair is it that the victims “must always make the necessary compromises to move a country forward,” when they’re the very ones who suffered the injustice? Dorfman’s play offers no easy answers. Curio’s production asks them with a fury.

No comments: