BWW Reviews: LA MUERTE Y LA DONCELLA Is Near Perfection at Kennedy Center
The 2014 World Stages Festival at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts is the kind of event that makes theatre and international affairs junkies such as myself extremely excited. It's definitely something a little bit different. Where else can one check out theatrical presentations from countries as varied as Iceland, Israel and Chile and many more? If the first selection I saw in the festival is an indication of the quality theatre that's going to be on display these next few weeks, the DC theatergoing public is in for a treat.
LA MAFIA Teatro's production of Ariel Dorfman's La Muerte Y La Doncella (Death and the Maiden), it turns out, showed me that I need to experience more of the Chilean theatre scene - and perhaps, make more use of that undergraduate Spanish degree I attained years ago by seeing a few pieces there. After a strong English language world premiere in London in 1991, the play went on to win the Olivier Award for Best New Play and then spawned a film by Roman Polanski, and a variety of other productions worldwide.
It's quite fitting that a Chilean theatre would take on this challenging piece of material inspired by Chile's own transition to democracy and the need to move to recognize past atrocities committed under the Pinochet regime and move forward. As presented at the Kennedy Center, this particular Spanish language production (with English surtitles) was definitely worth a look not only due to the strong script, but the honest way in which the small cast of three presented the story.
When we first meet Paulina Santos (Antonia Zegers) and Gerardo Escobar (César Sepúlveda), we witness your everyday squabble between two lovers. The lighthearted bickering will only last for a few minutes, however, as things will take a dark turn. The politically ambitious lawyer Escobar reveals that he's been offered and has accepted a position heading up a government committee that will 'investigate' the human rights abuses committed under the previous unnamed regime though it won't name any names. Yet, it seems he will become immersed into that world even earlier than envisioned. When Paulina discovers that the man he has brought home - a Good Samaritan that helped Gerardo when he had a flat tire - is the same man who tortured her as a political prisoner more than a decade ago, she decides that it's about time to put an end to the past that's left her current existence in a limbo-like state. Just as Doctor Miranda (Erto Pantoja) did when he tortured her, Santos puts a cassette recording of Schubert's "Death and the Maiden" on and took control of the situation. As Miranda is tied up at gunpoint, the question of who has the power is reversed and all three individuals enter into a complex reality where they must consider what really happened, how important it is to remember and move past it, what forgiveness is, and if it's possible. What emerges may not be what you first expect.
In this fluid play - much like the situation that inspired it - there are no easy answers and certainly no easy ending. The process of coming to terms with a dark past and the impact it has one one's present and future is far from an easy one no matter if one is the victim, the perpetrator, both, or a bystander.
As portrayed by these three actors, the reality of the messy situation they're all involved in came to the forefront, but it was impossible to lose sight of the humanity of all involved amidst the complexities. Raw emotions were the rule rather than the exception, but even with a story as heavy as this one, the acting was never overwrought. Every moment - from the situation-changing ones to the little ones - was treated with honesty and purpose.
While all three actors were excellent and worked together in a seamless way to convey the story, Zegers in particular drew me into the story in a way that few usually can. The painful memories of her character's past and determination to deal with her present situation in the way that's best for her rather than anyone else colored every aspect of her performance. Zeger's calculated choices were not only very much grounded in the script, but did well to add dimension to her character. Never one to show her hand, she left the audience guessing as to what Paulina would do next to the man she deemed her oppressor.
Pantoja, likewise, had a nice moment at the climax of the play when the truth is, in essence, set free and Miranda comes to realize he has little control over what's happening. Sepúlveda also did well to handle Gerardo's inner-conflict - a politically ambitious man who's forced to face a seemingly unthinkable and deeply personal situation.
Under the subtle direction of Moira Miller, all excelled. The urgency of the situation explored in the play was also more than adequately reinforced by strong music choices (Pablo Villalabeitia), scenography (Eduardo Jiménez), and lighting (uncredited). The set design, in particular - featuring an everyday living room that could easily be transformed into an area that's a little more confining - highlighted the idea of everyone being trapped by their current predicaments and was a nice touch.
The nice thing about Dorfman's script - and an idea that comes across well in this production - is while the situation that emerges in the play is very clearly inspired by what transpired in Chile, it also has global applicability to other socio-political contexts where the slow, arduous process of democratization rages on. This is because it takes a micro look at the transition from the perspective of a few individuals - all coming at it from different pasts, with different needs and expectations - that could be replicated in other social, political and cultural contexts.
All in all, this one is for the books.
Running Time: 90 minutes with no intermission.
"La Muerte Y La Doncella" played through March 16, 2014 at the Kennedy Center as part of the World Stages Festival. For more details on other events in the festival and tickets, consult the Kennedy Center website. The festival runs through March 30, 2014.
Photo Courtesy of LA MAFIA Teatro