While everyone in town is wetting their pants over the new Mesa Arts Center, the truly exciting news in local theater this week is taking place in a much less glamorous location. Wedged into the rehearsal space behind the main stage at the Herberger Theater Center, iTheatre Collaborative's production of Death and the Maiden is, I'll wager, among the most stirring evenings of theater you'll see all year.
Ariel Dorfman's semiautobiographical political thriller, full of twists and turns and high-strung dramatic moments, is a pleasure to watch unfold. Dorfman, a Chilean exile who feared extermination if he wrote under the dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet, penned a suspense story set in Chile in which nothing is necessarily as it appears. Is the man Paulina's lawyer husband brings home one night really the same man who, under a military dictatorship, presided over her rape and torture 15 years before? Or is she so delusional with grief and madness that she mistakes him for the sadistic doctor -- a man whose face she never saw during her torture, because she was blindfolded? At first her husband, Gerardo, thinks that's the case. Eventually, he comes to believe her. Or does he? By the end of Act One -- during which Paulina has bound and gagged the good doctor and made him her prisoner -- it's anyone's guess what each of the three characters we've been watching is really up to.
There's no doubt, though, that Death and the Maiden offers one of the best casts a Phoenix audience could ask for. Lillie Richardson is among our finest actors, and as Paulina she's called on to play a woman who's alternately jovial and condescending; who might be insane or simply jubilant in her finest hour. She plays scenes that in the hands of a lesser actress would certainly fall to scenery chewing, scenes filled with violence and fear, crackling with tension and crammed with Dorfman's darkly comic dialogue. She shifts from cantankerous glee to spiteful cruelty without a trace of the hamminess this kind of role practically demands. Mike Traylor's Gerardo enters as an efficient executive and winds up a baffled accomplice in a whacked-out punishment that may not be deserved, and plays both ends of this actorly spectrum with equal aplomb. Steven J. Scally has the less rangy but more difficult role of Dr. Miranda. Tied to a chair and left to emote almost entirely from the chin up, Scally must convince us that he's possibly guilty of the crimes Paulina is accusing him of. Snarling, spitting, or pleading for his life, Scally is called on to create a sympathetic portrait of a possibly unsympathetic man. He is, as usual, magnificent.
Director Charles St. Clair does a bang-up job of hauling us with breakneck speed from pity to horror to fear, and his use of music (the play's title is taken from a piece of music by Franz Schubert that Paulina loved but grew to hate when it was played during her torture sessions) and blocking -- much of it built around Paulina's gun, carelessly left on tables where her captor can grab for it -- add brilliantly to the tension.
Though this is a wonderful production, it's not without its faults. The cast members all speak with various foreign accents that come and go and occasionally impede their reading of Dorfman's best lines, and Sinclair's decision to show us a videotape of the play's final moments (which includes flashing live camcorder shots of audience members' feet and elbows onto a scrim, for some reason) is a bad one. But these flaws aren't enough to cancel out three brilliant performances and an overall stunning production of Dorfman's difficult and timely play.
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