Friday, September 19, 2014

Dorfman’s “Death and the Maiden” demonstrates the personal devastation of many dictatorships

Fernando Luna (front), Frank Lawler and Tonya Andrews in Death and the Maiden (Michael Brunk)

There is another September 11th, one we have little affinity for, but one that cements that particular date in history to particularly important historic activities, 1973: the Chilean coup of democratically-elected President Salvadore Allende by General Pinochet. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this was a U.S.-backed coup. Pinochet’s dictatorship included 17 years of tortures and human rights abuses.

Argentina has had a long series of dictators and coup attempts, often followed by disappearances and deaths of dissidents, students, journalists, and many other “normal” citizens, numbered in the tens of thousands. Ariel Dorfman, playwright and native-Argentinian, has written a play about the results of torture set in a South American country that is unnamed.

Death and the Maiden  is being produced by Latino Theatre Projects through September 28th. Tickets here (at the Ballard Underground).

Dorfman has said, “Twenty years ago, when Death and the Maiden, the play that tells this story, opened in London at the Royal Court Upstairs, the country where that woman, Paulina, awaited a constantly delayed justice, was my own Chile or the Argentina where I was born. Or South Africa. Or Hungary. Or China…. Today, as the same play is revived in London's West End, its main drama is echoed in Egypt, Tunisia, Syria, Iran, Nigeria, Sudan, Ivory Coast, Iraq, Thailand, Zimbabwe and now Libya.”

The message of this searing drama is that it happened, and happens, everywhere, and for those who go through the abductions and tortures, rapes and beatings, if they do not die, they have little to no recourse for justice or reconciliation. Dorfman’s play uses the small to write large.

Death and the Maiden  focuses on a mid-level political appointee to a new government (Gerardo Escobar – Frank Lawler) and his wife. Paulina (Tonya Andrews) has become a recluse, protected by Gerardo from too much agitation. Gerardo has been offered a prestigious appointment to a government taking over from a recent dictatorship. Trust in the government is close to non-existent, but Gerardo would be investigating crimes of the dictatorship with an eye toward justice and reconciliation.

This would be pretty terrifying, with the likelihood of failure extremely high. Dorfman has posited that Gerardo is idealistic with a strong sense of justice and forgiveness, which makes the character one that would have the highest possibilities of success in a job like this.

The action of the play centers on a flat tire that Gerardo gets, where a stranger, Dr. Medina (Fernando Luna), happens by to drive him home so Gerardo is not stranded. But who is this stranger? Does he have a more sinister connection to the couple? Paulina believes that he does. In fact, we soon see this passive, emotion-cramped woman take Dr. Medina hostage and accuse him of being the doctor who raped and tortured her 15 years before!

Gerardo is appalled at her behavior and it is now her job to convince him that she has not gone crazy. But has she also jeopardized his promotion? Will Dr. Medina go to the authorities and have her arrested? How will she successfully get out of this wild situation?

This is an intense drama with a great mystery. It helps bring the personal horror and the consequences of these world-wide human rights abuses into a bit more focus than just news reports. It’s a very smart play, as well, and is performed by three strong local actors. Check it out.

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