For its first show of 2018, Bag & Baggage presents the fierce, thought provoking, and utterly compelling Death and the Maiden. Playwright Ariel Dorfman’s 1991 drama explores the problem of how we, as individuals and as a social and political body, deal with the after effects of a period of oppression – how do we heal the victims, sanction the abusers, and move on to reintegrating both sides into a functioning society? While the play is clearly based on two survivors of Augusto Pinochet’s 17-year reign of terror in Chile, it could easily have been written about post-Nazi Germany or, on a less overtly catastrophic scale, about the “Me Too” movement and our efforts to deal with millennia of subjugation of women. Where there are no independent witnesses and the accused denies the charge, do we believe the victim?
Dorfman tells the story of Paulina Salas, a fictional Latin American woman who encounters Roberto Miranda, the man who (she believes) tortured and raped her 15 years earlier as an agent of a repressive political regime. Although she never actually saw her abuser, she recognizes his voice, smell, even the feel of his skin – there is no doubt in her mind that Miranda is guilty. A shaky democracy has been restored, and Salas’ lawyer husband, Gerardo Escobar, has just been appointed to a commission to investigate the worst excesses of the previous administration. Much to Escobar’s horror, Paulina pulls a gun, then binds and gags Miranda in the couple’s living room so that she can “try” him for his crimes. Not only does Escobar doubt his wife, but as a representative of the newly restored democracy he is committed to reinstituting the rule of law, although he knows that the commission will serve in large part to whitewash the vast majority of the dictatorship’s crimes. As the story progresses, Paulina becomes increasingly threatening, and Gerardo (uncertain about Miranda’s guilt or innocence, but certain that Paulina’s approach is wrong) ultimately talks Miranda into “confessing” to save his life.
Mandan Khoshnevisan (Paulina), Nathan Dunkin (Gerardo), and Anthony Green (Miranda) give commanding performances, and the contrast between their styles allows the story to flow with unbroken tension, yet not seem like a one-note show. As the dismayed husband, Dunkin displays a constantly shifting combination of frustration, disbelief, egotism, and solicitous compassion for a woman he obviously loves, yet cannot trust. The moment when he begins to consider the possibility that Miranda may actually be guilty is brilliant – just a flash of insight that comes and goes so quickly that he barely acknowledges it even to himself. Green’s performance is colored by shifting emotional reactions as he consistently denies his guilt – self-righteousness, anger, pleading, wheedling, conniving, just convincing enough that we are kept a little uncertain. However, it is Khoshnevisan who delivers a real tour de force. It’s a total joy watching her discard 15 years of terrified victimhood as she claims power over Miranda; she displays a wicked sense of humor, and her fiery strength and often-sadistic attitude drive home the message that karma’s a bitch. While there are elements of ambiguity about the conclusion, it is absolutely clear in the final scene that she has found the healing she sought, and we can only rejoice with her.
Jim Ricks-White, Jeffery A. Smith, and Tiffany Rousseau have teamed up on sound, lighting and technical design to make the walls of The Vault a place of magic as the ocean, impossibly starry nights, and a small taste of a Schubert concert surround the audience with the evocative sights and sounds of a South American coastline.
While Bag & Baggage Associate Artistic Director has co-directed several previous productions, Death and the Maiden is the first show she has handled as solo director. It was a challenging maiden voyage that she handled beautifully; Greer and her team have delivered a powerful show that lingers long after the lights go out.
Death and the Maiden is playing at The Vault, 350 E. Main Street, Hillsboro, through March 25th, with 7:30 p.m. performances Thursday, Friday, and Saturday and 2:00 p.m. Sunday matinees.