Death and the Maiden — Image courtesy Gremlin Theatre

Death and the Maiden

Gremlin Theatre & Torch Theater
Directed by David Mann

Ariel Dorfman’s Death and the Maiden is a play that fearlessly interrogates questions of guilt, innocence, victimization, complicity, reconciliation, justice, and revenge in the wake of a long and brutal dictatorship. It is also a play with a good bit of potentially clunky dialogue and a fairly abrupt ending that leaves much open to interpretation. In their current co-production at the Minneapolis Theatre Garage, the Gremlin Theatre and Torch Theater take on and largely conquer these challenges, drawing out what is most compelling about Dorfman’s play, gliding over some of its pitfalls, and avoiding the temptation to impose too much of a spin on the ending.

Death and the Maiden — Image courtesy Gremlin TheatreDirected by David Mann, Death and the Maiden features three actors who have shared many stages over the years: Torch artistic director Stacia Rice as Paulina Salas, a former medical student tormented by the two months of rape and torture she suffered 15 years earlier under her country’s former military regime; Gremlin artistic director Peter Christian Hansen as Paulina’s husband Gerardo Escobar, a human rights lawyer who has been asked by the current government to investigate the most serious crimes of the dictatorship; and Craig Johnson as Roberto Miranda, a doctor who helps Gerardo out with a flat tire one day and whom Paulina believes to be one of her torturers. The country in question is clearly inspired by Chile in the wake of the Pinochet regime, but this is never stated in the play; it seems we are meant to think this story could happen anywhere. The action revolves around the handgun-wielding Paulina’s decision to put Roberto on private trial for his alleged crimes, appointing Gerardo as his defense attorney.

Death and the Maiden — Image courtesy Gremlin TheatreDespite its concern with big political and social questions, Death and the Maiden is an intimate drama at its heart, and it gains much from being presented in a smaller venue in which the audience can pay close attention to every word, movement, and facial expression. And in this production, all three actors give the audience much to pay attention to. Rice’s Paulina is clearly disturbed, yet she moves through most of her actions in a coolly rational and calculated manner, as if she is the only sane one. Meanwhile, Hansen is persuasively unpersuasive as Gerardo, with his ineffectual appeals to even-handedness and liberality. Together, the two do a particularly good job of showing a genuine connection as a couple in the first scene, adding some depth to what comes after. As for Johnson, he seems to delight in making us guess which side of his character is the fiction and which is the reality, believably portraying the innocent man who is indignant at being accused of such horrible crimes while also giving a chilling rendition of Roberto’s coerced (but possibly accurate?) confession.

Clearly, these actors and their director have given a great deal of thought to the play’s characters, their actions, and what they represent, and the straightforward production gives them plenty of space to share these insights with the audience, while their light touch with the play’s symbolism mitigates Dorfman’s occasional heavy-handedness. Both the Gremlin and the Torch generally excel at bringing out the best in the plays they produce, and one hopes this will be only the first of many collaborations. Death and the Maiden plays through Feb. 21.

Photos by Aaron Fenster

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Eric Prindle

administers Bad Entertainment. He is also an attorney who leads a team of legal marketing copywriters at FindLaw. He is not Eric Prindle, the mixed martial arts fighter.