Death and the Maiden: still true

Michael Sproles, Oregon ArtsWatch

"...there are always lessons to be learned from history, and many of the themes and warnings in the work continue to ring true today."

-Michael Sproles, Oregon ArtsWatch

Preview: Ariel Dorfman’s relentless 1990 play about the aftermath of torture and political repression gets another look from Bag&Baggage.

It’s been nearly 30 years since the Argentinian-Chilean playwright Ariel Dorfman wrote his groundbreaking political masterpiece, Death and the Maiden. But there are always lessons to be learned from history, and many of the themes and warnings in the work continue to ring true today.

The 1990 play focuses on the story of Paulina Salas, a former political prisoner in an unnamed country emerging from a totalitarian dictatorship. When she comes face to face with the man she believes was her captor, accusations of complicity, collusion, and guilt complicate one basic question – is she telling the truth?

And after a long wait, it’s opening Friday night in Hillsboro, with a pay-what-you-will preview on Thursday. Bag&Baggage’s founding artistic director, Scott Palmer, and associate artistic director, Cassie Greer, spoke for five years about putting on the production in Hillsboro. With a strong historical basis, a determined female protagonist, and a relevant political message, the play seems to fit the mold of what their professional resident theater company puts forth often – provocative and intense performances that challenge audiences. This also marks Greer’s first time solo directing a B&B production.

Mandana Khoshnevisan as Paulina and Nathan Dunkin as Gerardo. Casey Campbell Photography

“This is a story that is incredibly timely; it deals with social justice,” she said. “However, at the same time, there are no easy answers. We’re having the story told in a way that blurs all of the lines.”

The set design is like a jury box – audience members will be seated on two sides of the stage, which resembles the beach house where Paulina (Mandana Khoshevisan) and her husband, Gerardo (Nathan Dunkin), live.

Paulina has been freed from the totalitarian state 15 years before the story begins. Yet she continues to reel from the events of her time in captivity, which included torture and rape led by a sadistic doctor whose face she never saw.

“There’s a ton of political weight in the background,” said Khoshnevisan. “She’s living with what happened every single day. There’s a lot of trauma from the past.”

The repressive regime is at an end, with a new democratic government on the rise. When Gerardo comes back from visiting the president, he gets a flat tire, and a stranger named Dr. Miranda, played by Anthony Green, stops to assist him. Miranda drives Gerardo home and then returns for a drink much later in the evening. Paulina recognizes Miranda’s voice and mannerisms, which seem to resemble those of her rapist. This drives her to tie him to a chair in her home in order to put him on trial and extract a confession from him.

“Gerardo uses every tactic under his belt to de-escalate the situation,” said Dunkin. “But with every attempt, the stakes get higher. And I think that’s one of the more challenging parts of acting in something like this – maintaining the stakes, and keeping the action compelling.”

At the play’s start, Gerardo is hired to head an investigative committee tasked with finding people who were kidnapped under the previous dictatorship, as well as those responsible for the heinous crimes that took place, making the situation all the more precarious.

“One of the main questions that this work poses to the audience is, ‘What is the truth?’ One person’s truth is another person’s lie,” said Green. “When people question your truth, sometimes you begin to question it. What is morality? These issues aren’t selective to the 21st century, they’re timeless.”

He has a point. It’s impossible to separate Death and the Maiden from history, largely because the setting of the play imitates the harsh and extremely painful reality that Dorfman, and many others across the globe, have suffered in.

Tony Green as Roberto, tied up and at the mercy of Mandana Khoshnevisan as Paulina. Casey Campbell Photography

The 1969 Cuban revolution began to inspire leftist movements in Latin America. By 1970, Salvador Allende became the first democratically elected socialist president of Chile, a first in the region. After winning, Allende worked toward social reforms and justice, nationalizing natural resources, building homes for the poor, and focusing on better access to health and education. These pursuits fed into increasingly strained relations between Allende and the legislative and judicial branches of the government, which then led to a declaration by Congress of a constitutional breakdown.

On Sept. 11, 1973, the socialist government was toppled by a military coup led by Augusto Pinochet, who was Allende’s own army chief.

Declassified Central Intelligence Agency documents revealed that the American government of President Richard Nixon and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger influenced the coup, and provided resources through the CIA to deter any leftist movements in the country. This remorseless event was merely one part of “Operation Condor,” a larger effort to enact political repression upon the continent and destroy movements inspired by socialism and Marxism via CIA-backed military coups in countries like Brazil, Guatemala, Haití, Uruguay, Bolivia, El Salvador, Panama, and Chile.

The international objectives of the CIA, in both historic and present-day context, have often been imperialistic in nature, and Operation Condor sought to incite violence, uprisings, military rebellions, and economic chaos in the territory.

Dorfman himself served as a cultural advisor to Allende, who committed suicide with an assault rifle as rebel troops surrounded La Moneda Palace. With the support of the American government, Pinochet rose to power as a dictator and ruled the country for 17 years, which resulted in the jailing of an estimated 80,000 people, torturing of 30,000, and murder of about 3,200.

Dorfman went on to live in Paris, Amsterdam, and Washington, D.C., and became a citizen of the United States in 2004. He committed his life’s work to writing about the country of Chile and calling out the violations of the Pinochet dictatorship. However, in his first years of political exile, he found it extremely difficult to write. In 1990, when Pinochet stepped down from power, Dorfman finished his play, which confronts the aftermath of any dictatorship’s cruel practices, torture, and the victims who are forced to coexist with those who have destroyed their lives.

“We want people in the audience to question themselves – we have systems, are they failing us?” said Green. “Do we trust the structures that are put into place?”

Even though Chile now lives under democratic rule, only about 75 of more than a thousand of Pinoche’s former agents are serving prison sentences for human rights violations. Many leftist organizations in the country continue to call for those who played a role in the atrocities to be met with justice.

“The production is dense, and challenging, and complicated. It asks us very difficult contemporary questions,” said Greer. “How do we make sense of the #MeToo movement? How can a democracy stand idly by when witnessing the global refugee crisis, or the extermination of the Rohingya? And it does so in a deeply engaging way, through the frame of three people in a room confronting their pasts.”

Bag&Baggage’s Death And The Maiden opens Friday, March 9, at The Vault Theatre in downtown Hillsboro and continues through March 25, with a “pay what you will” preview performance at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, March 8th. Tickets and schedule information here or the box office, 503-345-9590.


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