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Theater Review:

"DEATH AND THE MAIDEN" at TimeLine Theatre

BY LUCIA MAURO

"People can die from an excessive dose of the truth!" Gerardo Escobar snaps at his victimized wife, Paulina Salas, who demands to bring her torturer to justice in Ariel Dorfman’s chamber-style morality play, "Death and the Maiden." The line is rich in confounding paradoxes – reflecting the literal reality of those put to death for speaking the truth, as well as the collective denial that often surrounds situations of unspeakable brutality and dehumanization.

Dorfman’s sparse 90-minute drama, set in an unnamed Latin American country moving from dictatorship to democracy, has the capacity to sneak up on one’s moral comfort zone. Vengeance seems Paulina’s only recourse, yet she must question whether or not her torturers have won if she confronts one of them using their same tactics. The playwright also ponders how justice can be truly served by officials bogged down in corruption and self gain. Yet does vigilante justice promote a never-ending cycle of tyranny?

TimeLine Theatre Company’s equally sparse staging directed by Barry Brunetti certainly delves into these ever-timely quandaries. But Brunetti could still push the performers from less consciously staged interpretations into more ambiguous and multidimensional planes. For instance, as Paulina, Mary O’Dowd’s almost literal deer-in-the-headlights demeanor stays at one hyper-emotional level so that we focus on her downspiraling instability, not her complex motivations.

Like Dorfman’s earthshattering questions and explorations of the coexistence of good and evil – both in society and in a single individual – this production needs to keep the audience guessing.

In "Death and the Maiden," a lawyer – Gerardo Escobar – has been appointed to head a commission investigating the human rights violations of his country’s previous military regime. Fifteen years earlier, his wife Paulina Salas was kidnapped and held as a political prisoner. She endured rape and torture overseen by a medical doctor who played the music of Shubert during these brutalities.

One evening, Gerardo returns home with a man, Dr. Roberto Miranda, who helped fix his flat tire. As soon as Paulina hears Miranda’s voice, she is certain that this is the same man who supervised her own torture. After Gerardo invites the doctor to stay the night, Paulina gags and binds Miranda at gun point. She quickly finds a tape of Shubert’s "Death and the Maiden" in Miranda’s car, and further probing continues to strengthen her suspicions.

Paulina forces Gerardo to serve as Miranda’s attorney. The trial is held that evening in their home. She seeks closure through Miranda’s confession. But for Dorfman’s drama to be truly poignant, audiences must leave with a gnawing sense of doubt. In Brunetti’s production, it remains quite clear that Miranda is guilty.

O’Dowd is a forceful and lucid actress. But a greater sense of mystery and gradual unhinging would make her Paulina so much more believable. O’Dowd gets dangerously close to playing Paulina as psychotic. Gary Simmers as Gerardo is appropriately hesitant and torn. He, too, can push his character into fiercely ambiguous territory – although his portrayal gains more textured dimensions as the play progresses. Thomas Edson McElroy’s Miranda, while prompting suspicion, comes on too strong from the get-go. His early slick smugness and sly aggression may prompt one to instantly dislike his character. The moral vagueness, so crucial to this work, is nearly blotted out.

Brunetti’s angular, interrogatory blocking and scenic designer Craig Choma’s off-kilter stage configuration more powerfully convey the script’s icy, unstable horror. And TimeLine’s production subtly illuminates Dorfman’s uncomfortable linking of sexual pleasure and pain. Particularly wrenching are Charles Cooper’s macabre lighting and Chris J. Johnson’s eerie brain-rattling sound design and original music.

One cannot deny, however, Dorfman’s profound insights into the polarities of our existence – from the irony of monsters with refined tastes to every human’s capacity for compassion and cruelty.

"Death and the Maiden" runs through June 2 at TimeLine Theatre, 615 W. Wellington. Tickets: $10-$15. Call 312-409-8463 or log onto www.TimeLineTheatre.com.

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