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“DEATH AND THE MAIDEN” | Review by Robert W. McDowell

“DEATH AND THE MAIDEN” ASKS, SHOULD TORTURE SHOULD BE USED TO FORCE THE GUILTY TO CONFESS THEIR CRIMES?

Death and The Maiden at Kennedy TheatreAfter the urbane wit of Neil Simon’s BAREFOOT IN THE PARK and the lewd, crude cornpone comedy of THE GREAT AMERICAN TRAILER PARK MUSICAL by David Nehls and Betsy Kelso, Hot Summer Nights at the Kennedy’s nail-biting presentation of Chilean-American dramatist and Duke University professor Ariel Dorfman’s harrowing 1990 psychological drama, DEATH AND THE MAIDEN, is an unexpected splash of ice water in the face. The subject is vigilante justice and DEATH AND THE MAIDEN asks an especially timely question, “Should kidnapping and torture be used to force the guilty to confess their crimes?”

On the surface, desperate housewife Paulina Salas Escobar (played alternately with fury and heart-wrenching poignancy by Benji Taylor Jones) has plenty of justification. Fifteen years ago, while she was a college student in an unnamed South American country, Paulina was scooped up off the street, imprisoned without charges, blindfolded, and brutally raped and tortured over and over by representatives of the ruthless military junta then in power. Her nerves shattered by this nightmarish ordeal, Paulina has skittish as a feral cat, and a virtual recluse in the beach house that she shares with her husband, human-rights attorney and political activist Gerardo Escobar (1995 Tony Award® nominee Alan Campbell).

Gerardo has been asked by the country’s new democratically elected president to serve on an investigative commission that will expose the abuses of the military dictatorship, but whose principal aim is reconciliation and not identification and punishment of the wrongdoers. Then one night, while Gerardo is on his way home from an important meeting with top officials of the new government, a flat tire strands him on the roadside.

When Gerardo invites Dr. Roberto Miranda (David McClutchey), the Good Samaritan who picks him up and drives him home, in for a drink, Paulina thinks that she recognizes Miranda’s voice as the voice of a doctor who did unspeakable things to her; and she sets about creating her own private Guantánamo right there at the beach house, based on such flimsy evidence as the audiotape of the Franz Schubert quartet “Death and the Maiden” in his car stereo. (It seems the prison doctor employed a Schubert during torture sessions.)

First, Paulina renders Dr. Miranda unconscious, then she ties him to an arm chair and gags him. Then, after she removes his gag, the tortured becomes the torturer and Gerardo becomes an extremely reluctant accomplice in giving Miranda — as in Miranda Rights (how ironic) — the third degree.

WARNING: SPOILERS

Alan Campbell & David McClutchey. Photos by Katherine Kennedy

But can any confession made upon pain of death truly be reliable? That is one tough question that playwright Ariel Dorfman asks; and he muddies the dramatic waters, so that there is never absolute certainty about whether Miranda is, in fact, Paulina’s tormentor or whether his detailed confession is the truth or merely the result of extensive coaching by Gerardo, who thinks that this nightmarish turn of events to come to a quicker resolution if Roberto confesses.

What is undeniable about the current Hot Summer Nights at the Kennedy production of DEATH AND THE MAIDEN is that the onstage pyrotechnics fueled by the rage of Benji Taylor Jones as Paulina, the initial indignation and ultimately the fear of David McClutchey as Roberto, and the increasing queasiness of Alan Campbell as Gerardo make for a series of explosive confrontations in which Taylor is an avenging angel, Campbell is the unheeded voice of reason, and McClutchey is a squirming victim or victimizer (take your choice). But it is also undeniable that this trio of terrific performers create three unforgettable characters that are the stuff that nightmares are made of.

HSN producer and director Adam Twiss deserves kudos for his suspenseful staging of this tightly wound drama. But scenic designer Chris Bernier’s beach-house set is a bit too elaborate, and the time it takes for stagehands to move various elements of it into new positions interrupts the action and slows the dramatic momentum. In the case of DEATH AND THE MAIDEN, simpler is definitely better. This is a play of raw language and even rawer emotions, and any slowdown for scene changes becomes an unnecessary distraction for viewers sitting on the edge of their seats.

SECOND OPINION: July 29th Raleigh, NC NEWS & OBSERVER review by Roy C. Dicks: http://www.newsobserver.com/2010/07/29/603149/dorfmans-maiden-delivers-suspense.html.

Compare opinions, read review by Triangle A&E Susie Potter

Hot Summer Nights at the Kennedy presents DEATH AND THE MAIDEN at 8 p.m. July 29-31, 3 p.m. Aug. 1, 8 p.m. Aug. 4-7, and 3 p.m. Aug. 8 in the Sara Lynn and K.D. Kennedy, Jr. Theater in the Progress Energy Center for the Performing Arts, 2 E. South St., Raleigh, North Carolina 27601.

TICKETS: $22 ($18 students and seniors). BOX OFFICE: 866/811-4111 or https://www.ovationtix.com/trs/pr/712615.

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Categorised in: A&E Theatre Reviews, Lead Story, Reviews

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