Review: Death and the Maiden (Red Sandcastle Theatre)

Intense dramas in tight spaces are a treat for me, and there is one currently playing at Red Sandcastle Theatre. Ariel Dorfman’s political thriller, Death and the Maiden, gets a modest and intimate staging at this cozy Queen East venue.

Set in an unnamed South American country after the fall of a dictatorship, the play unfolds in an isolated beach house. This is the home of Paulina, a former political prisoner and torture survivor, which she shares with her lawyer husband, Gerardo. He has recently been appointed the head of a commission tasked with investigating human rights violations from the previous regime.

Tension between the couple is fairly high to start and increases quickly with the arrival of a late night guest, Roberto. He’s a little too friendly, though very flattering to Gerardo who he admires for his humanitarian efforts. Paulina, however, believes Roberto to be the doctor that raped her during her torture and confinement.

After knocking him temporarily unconscious, Paulina ties Roberto to a chair and with Gerardo as her captive’s counsel, puts him on trial. With a gun in hand, Paulina exacts a cathartic form of vigilante justice while Gerardo strives to ensure proper order and uphold the procedural requirements of the law. Roberto claims innocence even as the circumstantial evidence builds up around him. There is no hard proof of his guilt, only behavioural quirks identified by Paulina.

Amber Mackereth doesn’t really capture Paulina’s sense of humour or manage to be quite as intimidating as needed, but when the full weight of her tortured memories are revealed, it’s hard to look away from her persuasively anguished face.

As Gerardo, Andrew McGillvray is the most endearing of the three. He’s the closest we get to an audience surrogate as he tries to be both a fair voice of reason and a supportive husband.

In his early scenes, Scott McCulloch’s Roberto is full of charm, but as Paulina goads him, his good humour gives way to cold arrogance and sudden rages. Even in silence, his eyes betray a frightful hostility.

There was some stiffness to the performances, perhaps the result of the actors being under-rehearsed. Physically, the actors seem somewhat uncomfortable with the set and props. As they try to maneuver around chairs and tables or reach for doorknobs that are just out of reach, some naturalism is lost. The tension is built up well, though, and the emotions feel genuine enough.

On the technical side, I found some of director Deborah Ann Frankel’s choices distracting. The most frustrating for me was the lack of stage blood where the action calls for it. The production has running water, lit cigarettes and the actors drink real liquid from bottles. Within this realistic presentation, the miming of blood rings particularly false.

There were some audio choices that were similarly problematic. Early on, there is an offstage conversation presented through very obviously pre-recorded dialogue that could have just as easily been performed live and un-enhanced, given the small space. This choice is especially strange considering there is a later offstage scene performed just so. The pre-recorded gunshots (instead of on-stage blanks) didn’t work for me either, but I understand that resources may not have allowed for ideal solutions to some effects requirements.

It has been many years since I’ve read the play or seen it on stage, but I am fairly certain that the company chose to perform text and action from Roman Polanski’s film rather than Dorfman’s original stage version. The story is essentially the same, but there are significant differences in running time and style. Those familiar with the original may notice this is shorter, more compact and without the more overtly theatrical flourishes.

A little rough around the edges, this production of Death and the Maiden is, for the most part, quite compelling.

Details:

  • Death and the Maiden is playing until March 3, 2019 at Red Sandcastle Theatre (922 Queen Street East)
  • Shows run Friday March 1 and Saturday March 2 at 8:00pm, with a matinee on Sunday March 3 at 2:00pm
  • Tickets are $20 and can be purchased online or at the venue

Image by Bus Milne provided by the company.

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