Is justice contextual? Does it mean one thing for a nation recovering from decades of brutalizing dictatorship and another for the individual who suffered that brutalization? And how does that individual, and that nation, both face the specter of the past and move on from it?
These questions are at the heart of Ariel Dorfman’s Olivier Award winning La Muerte y La Doncella (Death and the Maiden), presented by Chile’s LA MAFIA teatro as part of the Kennedy Center’s World Stages: International Theater Festival 2014.
Although written over 20 years ago and training its sights on the brutal Pinochet regime that ruled Chile from 1973 to 1990 (and led to Dorfman’s own exile from that country), the play is newly relevant in the 21st century, as the author himself has noted. While neither Chile nor Pinochet are mentioned by name, Death and the Maiden is set in a sea-ringed Latin American country taking its first steps into democracy after decades of dictatorship and the incarceration, torture, and death of untold numbers of its citizens. Now, the fledging republic must decide how to deal with its past in order to arrive at a different future.
Do heinous crimes of the past warrant equal punishment in the present, as the neighborly Doctor Miranda suggests? Is forgiveness, no matter how difficult, the only way forward, as crusading lawyer Gerardo – about to chair his nation’s first human rights commission – argues? Or is justice a purely individual act, reserved for those like Paulina, Gerardo’s wife, who experienced the atrocities themselves? Dorfman presents us with these questions, and these choices, years before Nelson Mandela instituted South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission as a way to confront that country’s horrific past. The path has not been easy.
One imagines that the arc of Dorfman’s story will be familiar to residents of present-day Egypt, Iraq, and Tunisia, as well as South Africa. It may be a future narrative for Syria. A knock on the door at midnight revives old fears of goon squads, darkened prison cells, and unnameable instruments of torture. But in this case, it is simply the amiable Doctor Miranda (Erto Pantoja) returning Gerardo’s spare car tire, after giving the stranded lawyer a lift home along a deserted seaside highway. The doctor’s Good Samaritan act triggers a series of events that lead to his own incarceration, tied to a chair in Gerardo’s living room, interrogated by the formerly docile Paulina. As it turns out, she is the victim of torture and rape under the former regime – details of which she has never shared with Gerardo – and she recognizes in Miranda’s speech the voice of her former torturer. Waving a revolver in her hand, Paulina (Antonia Zegers) puts Miranda on trial, while confessing to him her own pain, outrage, and confusion.
The bewildered Gerardo pleads with Paulina to free Miranda and let civil justice have its course – if Miranda is indeed the monster she claims he is, which Gerardo strongly doubts. Irony stands upon irony, as both Miranda and Paulina appeal to different sides of the conflicted Gerardo, and as Paulina discovers in Miranda’s car the beautiful Schubert quartet (“Death and the Maiden”) which was her torturer’s calling card. Is it all just coincidence? Is Paulina jumping to conclusions, as both Miranda and Gerardo insist? Or is the amiable doctor (played with convincing levity and terror by Pantoja) really the demon Paulina says he is? Do sophisticated, civilized exteriors hide an inner heart of darkness?
The questions Dorfman asks are profound and relevant, but Death and the Maiden can sometimes feel like a civics lecture, if a very important one: How do nations in recovery, like individuals, acknowledge, work through, and move on from sins of the past? Can victims and perpetrators co-exist? Should they?
The multiple ironies implied in Death and the Maiden are among its strongest details, suggesting that for all of us, as nations and as individuals, the lines between justice, retribution, and forgiveness are less clear and more laced with emotion than we would readily admit. LA MAFIA teatro’s production, a U.S. premiere, highlights these ironies with a strong cast and a simple, suggestive set design in which the lattice backdrop of Paulina and Gerardo’s seaside home evokes both the airy languor of coastal holidays and the sinister specter of the detention cell.
Salas’ Paulina is by turns gentle and needy, in her relationship with Escobar’s Gerardo, and angry and vituperative, if not ferocious, in her interrogation of Pantoja’s Miranda. More fire would mix well with the ambiguous oil and water of Pantoja’s good doctor, who is both sympathetic and, very possibly, quite evil. He projects something that may be inside all of us, which is a point one feels Cesar Sepulveda’s Gerardo would make, if he could more effectively stand up to an enraged Paulina. For a crusader about to become his country’s human rights commissioner, one wonders if Gerardo has enough backbone, or if Salas’ Paulina is unhinged enough to make him show it. That being said, these actors acquit themselves well with a script that is tight, ripe with fast-paced dialogue, but also didactic. Given seismic political shifts around the globe in which dictatorships have given way to fledging, uncertain and unstable democracies, that is not a bad thing at all.
Death and the Maiden was performed in Spanish with English supertitles above and to the sides of the Kennedy Center’s Family Theater stage. English speakers may have found it a challenge, although a necessary one, to move constantly between stage action and supertitle screen, and some stage work is unfortunately “lost in translation.” But this seemrf a fair sacrifice for a work so steeped in Latin American politics, although with near universal resonance, to be presented in its original language. A less immediately clear issue is the transition time between several of the play’s scenes; the blackouts seemed a bit long, given the relatively minor reconfigurations of the production’s spartan set. One wonders if a slightly more artful mode of transition is in order.
Audiences should have been alerted, as they are not in the accompanying paybill, to the inclusion of a loud gunshot in the production’s latter half. But by that time, they were well aware of the volatility, danger, and high stakes in this dramatic game of account settling between victim and perpetrator. The question that remains is which is which?
La Muerte y La Doncella (Death and the Maiden) produced by LA MAFIA teatro from Chile closed March 16th. The World Stages International Festival continues at The Kennedy Center through March 30, 2014. Details and tickets.