Death Be Not Subtle

Ariel Dorfman's political potboiler opens like the creaky thrillers from which it's descended -- on the proverbial dark and stormy night. Paulina is alone, waiting for her husband to arrive at their desolate beach house. It's raining. There's no phone. A stranger enters.

Well, maybe not a stranger. As Death and the Maiden fans know, the Good Samaritan who gives Paulina's husband Gerardo a ride home and then comes in for a drink is the doctor who tortured Paulina fifteen years earlier, when the country was under the control of a fascist government. Or is he? This is the question meant to torment audiences. Is Paulina transferring the memory of her captor onto the unlucky Dr. Miranda? Or is this man (whom Paulina heard but never saw during her imprisonment) lying about his real identity?

As a not very subtle political allegory, the play, of course, is asking other questions. They seem especially pertinent as Gen. Augusto Pinochet, the man responsible for the disappearance of thousands in Chile (where the Argentine-born playwright was raised) sits in a British jail, awaiting possible extradition and trial. What happens in the wake of a repressive regime, Death and the Maiden asks, when victim meets torturer? Now Paulina is in a position to do what was done to her: to decide the intruder's fate without hard evidence, tie him up, humiliate him, and threaten to take his life. But should she? How is democracy best served?

Set in an unnamed Latin American country in the present day, Death and the Maiden presents the dilemma this way: "What's more important," asks Paulina's husband, the newly named head of a commission to investigate recent abuses, "justice or truth?" As he explains to his wife, the tribunal he runs will be able to gather information on past abuses but, like many real-life tribunals, it does not have the power to punish the perpetrators.

Quandaries like these are realities for any number of fledgling and shaky democracies, from South Africa to Chile and Argentina, where truth commissions will never be able to give life or peace of mind back to the people from whom it was taken. Someday refugees of Kosovo might have to decide whether to kill the neighbors who helped drive them out or learn to live with them, staring down memories of torture and indignity. Is it enough just to record what happened? Or should they seek revenge?

At the Coconut Grove Playhouse, long before Dorfman's themes unfold, this production introduces its own set of puzzles, albeit less titillating ones. Visitors to the theater's Encore Room, where the tables have been rearranged to accommodate a two-tier trapezoidal stage, will be asking themselves about more mundane issues. Why, for example, doesn't Paulina's tall, strong-looking husband Gerardo (played by tall, strong-looking Christopher Bishop) or the formidably beefier Dr. Miranda (played by the beefy Gonzalo Madurga) simply overwhelm tiny Paulina (played by the very slight Ru Flynn-Sales)?

Why is Paulina so quick to grab a gun when she hears the doctor come into the house and speak to her husband? (After giving Gerardo a lift home when he finds him on the road with a flat tire, Miranda leaves then returns, having just heard on the radio that his erstwhile passenger is the new head of a truth commission. Gerardo then invites him in for a drink.) And why does the director have Paulina prance around in a kind of impressionistic ballet that serves as the play's opener, gun in hand as though she were a demented cast member of Charlie's Angels, to the accompaniment of what seems to be heart-pounding B-movie music?

With its histrionic texture and its middlebrow treatment of serious political issues, Death and the Maiden is a difficult play to pull off in the best of circumstances. Even the 1994 Roman Polanski film adaptation starring Sigourney Weaver and Ben Kingsley could barely save the story from its over-the-top soap operatic thrust. (What's always bothered me is that the character of Paulina is just two degrees away from the offensive stereotype of a hysterical woman.) However you dress it up, the drama is almost always more sensational than thoughtful.

At the Playhouse director Mario Ernesto Sanchez, the talented artistic director of Teatro Avante and head of the International Hispanic Theatre Festival, sets an impressionistic tack, one that doesn't really serve the play. His production is unfocused, rushed, and confusing, anything but the provocative parlor game that Dorfman originally created. I'm willing to bet that most theatergoers won't even realize the unresolved ending is intentional. Here the action merely seems to come to an end arbitrarily, the characters seguing into a coda that's truly odd, utterly disconnected from the tone of the play.

The Encore Room's limited sightlines and acoustics don't help things, particularly because the production space has been manipulated to allow for a theater-in-the-round staging, with actors facing different directions in different scenes. I'm not sure if Paulina's face registers her recognition of the doctor's voice when she first hears him, because her back was turned to me. This is an essential scene. It's not until much later that she tells her husband it is the way Miranda sounds that convinces her their Good Samaritan is also the man who tortured her while listening to Schubert's "Death and the Maiden" quartet.

Without this crucial bit of information, it's difficult to fathom why Paulina appears in the next scene, pistol in hand, and ties the doctor to a stake. (That is, to one of the three poles that serve as suggestions of furniture in Paulina and Gerardo's living room, where the entire play takes place.) But if Paulina's silent reaction to Miranda's voice was lost on me, a lot of the dialogue bypassed the older theatergoers around me. Three people told me they couldn't hear the voices of actors speaking with their backs to the audience.

It's important that we understand Paulina's background so that we can at least guess at her motives. At one point we learn that when she was a university student, Paulina was kidnapped, raped, and tortured. We must be convinced that she is potentially sympathetic, a victim of posttraumatic stress disorder, but also capable of bad judgment. We're supposed to be in suspense, not wondering how Paulina mysteriously holds two men at gunpoint. Anyone who saw the movie (or a more successful stage production) knows the only way we can believe Paulina is able to take control of the action is if the actress cast in this part is physically or psychologically imposing. Action heroine Weaver is believable in this guise, as is the psychologically menacing Glenn Close, who played the role on Broadway. Ru Flynn-Sales is not.

While Flynn-Sales's lack of physical presence renders the production ridiculous from the get-go, Madurga's contribution to the doctor's character is to make him a cipher. We're supposed to vacillate over him, too, thinking that he may be the monster who tortured Paulina. Like her captor he quotes Nietzsche. He has a tape of "Death and the Maiden" in his car.

Or he may just have wandered into the wrong place at the wrong time. There's no real evidence that he is who Paulina thinks he is. Madurga, however, barely makes an impression. Rather than wonder who this guy really is, I found I didn't care.

As Gerardo Escobar, Bishop gives the strongest performance by default. But it's also a deft performance on its own. The actor's sureness underscores the play's greatest weakness, however. The essential question facing countries crawling out from under totalitarian regimes is not "What should be the relationship between torturer and victim?" but rather "How should the new government deal with each side?" Dorfman, a prolific novelist and a professor at Duke University, is less interested in this question than in the more prurient possibilities of confrontation between the Paulinas and the Mirandas of the world.

As Gerardo so poignantly reminds his wife, a primary outrage of dictatorship is that prisoners are not allowed to speak up. "Even if this man committed genocide on a daily basis," Gerardo says of Miranda, "he deserves a chance to defend himself." Indeed Gerardo admits he is revolted by his wife's tactics. At the same time, he is heartbroken by the knowledge of what happened to her. This is the essential contradiction of the play, the reason that Gerardo should be the most interesting person in the room.

In Dorfman's play Gerardo, as the stand-in for democracy, is considered a secondary player. In reality he needs to be the star.

Death and the Maiden.
Written by Ariel Dorfman. Directed by Mario Ernesto Sanchez. With Christopher Bishop, Ru Flynn-Sales, and Gonzalo Madurga. Through June 13. Coconut Grove Playhouse, 3500 Main Hwy, Coconut Grove; 305-442-2662.