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By John Quinn
Posted: Sept. 22, 2012 at 8:14 p.m.
In reflecting on his 1990 play, "Death and the Maiden," Chilean-born writer Ariel Dorfman noted, "I wanted to look at the question of how we coexist in the same country, even in the same room, with someone who has caused us grievous, perhaps irreparable harm. Would we be able to resist taking revenge, if that revenge were made possible?" His answer, brought to us by the Matrix Theatre Company, is grim and disturbing.
Somewhere in Latin America, a nation is emerging from military dictatorship. (The inspiration from Dorfman's homeland under the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet is obvious.) Lawyer Gerardo Escobar and his wife, Paulina, democrats both, live in an isolated beach house. A flat tire on their lonely road puts Gerardo in debt to the Samaritan who stopped to help, Dr. Roberto Miranda. Gerardo's offer to take his new friend home for a couple of his wife's margaritas is a mistake. Fifteen years earlier, Paulina had been a prisoner of the State and subjected to torture and rape. She was blindfolded during her ordeal, yet she identifies Miranda, by his voice and his love of Schubert, as the government toady who abused her. Paulina overcomes her overnight houseguest; she binds and gags him with her own stockings and is prepared to be judge, jury and executioner. But does she have the right man? Due process is one of Gerardo's guiding principles and he, in essence, becomes Miranda's defense attorney against Miranda's resolve.
This is definitely Paulina's play, and Karen Kron is more than capable in the role. She gives a searing, emotionally wrought performance; with the character weaving from hatred to what may be insanity.
Samer Ajluni's Miranda deftly walks a narrow line between guilt and innocence without giving away the truth.
The conflicted Gerardo is a fascinating character study in the hands of Patrick Loos. He, too, is tortured, divided between his deep sense of justice and his loyalty to his wife. All in all, director Kate Peckham has guided her cast into a powerful ensemble.
Matrix took a tremendous risk in undertaking "Death and the Maiden" for a number of reasons; not the least of which is the fact the play was intended for a conventional theater – with a curtain. Matrix's three-quarter-round black box conceals nothing, nor is distance any defense against scathing emotions. Paulina's binding and unbinding of Miranda is done in an almost dance-like ritual. This is very suitable for the intermission, when Ajluni gets 10 minutes to regain his breath and circulation, but does not reflect the torrent of emotions Paulina must be experiencing when she first realizes she has her torturer in her hands. The binding is oddly paced compared with the following segment; Paulina plays a tape of the Schubert string quartet from which the play takes its name. Kron's monologue is brilliantly pitched and paced to the music, leaving a puzzling contrast.
Unfortunately, the action is drawn up short again before the final scene for a set change that, from my point of view, is not really necessary. The scene has shifted from the Escobar home to a concert hall, months later. Jarrett Thomas's lighting design definitively makes that transition on its own, isolating the characters in a warm ball of light. By the by, that's no small trick when working with Matrix's rigid lighting positions.
The old proverb "revenge is a dish best served cold" is likely no longer used as originally intended. It probably meant to wait and see if common sense overrides raw emotion. Revenge is a zero-sum game, and woe to the victim who realizes she has become what she wished to destroy. Confucius stated it better: "Before you embark on a journey of revenge, dig two graves."
SHOW DETAILS: "Death and the Maiden" continues at Matrix Theatre Company, 2730 Bagley, Detroit, Friday-Sunday through Oct. 14. Running time: 132 minutes. Tickets: $15-20. For information: 313-967-0999 or www.matrixtheatre.org.
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