BY JOHN FLEMING
Times Performing Arts Critic
Death and the Maiden, Ariel Dorfman's play set in a country much like Chile a few years after a dictatorship, is often considered a political work, but as described by director Gavin Hawk, it sounds more like a psychological thriller.
"A woman kidnaps and tortures a doctor because she believes he was her torturer and rapist when she was the prisoner of a fascist regime several years ago. Her husband, a lawyer and civil rights activist, ends up being the mediator between the two. The man he sees before him had helped him out at the beginning of the play. The doctor had picked him up when he had a flat tire and drove him home, where they had drinks and got along famously until it all went to hell. What keeps it interesting is that you don't know who's telling the truth and who's lying."
Death and the Maiden is the first production of A Simple Theatre, founded by Gavin Hawk and Meg Heimstead, a pair of Tampa Bay actors and directors. Opening tonight at the Studio@620 in St. Petersburg, the play exemplifies the new company's approach.
"We looked around at theaters in the community and asked how can we be different," said Hawk, a theater professor at Eckerd College. "American Stage does traditional theater incredibly well. FreeFall does wonderful spectacle plays, full of amazement. We thought there is a place for a voice that is a little bit edgier and cut to the bone. We strip away everything that is extraneous to the acting and storytelling of the play."
Hawk and Heimstead, education director at American Stage, assembled a strong cast, with Roxanne Fay as the woman, Steve Garland as her husband and Giles Davies as the doctor.
It was Fay who suggested that the company make its debut with Death and the Maiden when she, Hawk and Heimstead were all in the cast of FreeFall Theatre's production last year of Jekyll & Hyde. "We wanted something that was character driven, something that would really come out swinging, something that would make people sit up and take notice," Hawk said. "This play is perfect. It's just three characters on a single location set, and it's a quick-moving piece."
Dorfman, an Argentinian who became a Chilean citizen, was obviously thinking of the military junta led by Augusto Pinochet that ruled Chile from 1973 to 1990, but his play is not specific. For Hawk, that meant he didn't feel compelled to cast Latino actors. Indeed, the original Broadway cast in 1992 starred Glenn Close, Richard Dreyfuss and Gene Hackman.
"That's about as Anglo as you can get with casting," he said. "I think Dorfman wanted the play to be universal and not just about South American politics. Nobody mentions Pinochet."
The title of the play comes from a Schubert string quartet. "I use a recording of Death and the Maiden by the Takacs Quartet all the way through," Hawk said. "It's such an integral part of the plot. When the woman was tortured and raped, her torturer would always play the quartet while he did these horrible things. At one point she says, 'It's time for me to reclaim my Schubert.' ''
Death and the Maiden is scheduled to transfer to the Mainstage Theatre on the Ybor City campus of Hillsborough Community College for performances Sept. 15-17.
Hawk is starring in Barefoot in the Park, the Neil Simon play that runs through Sept. 25 at American Stage. He has been directing rehearsals of Death and the Maiden during the day, but because he is acting himself most nights, he won't be able to see his staging of the Dorfman play with an audience except for the last performance of the run at Studio@620 on Sept. 11.
"At that point I've given it to the actors," he said. "It'll be in their hands. I think it's good for the life of a play not to have somebody constantly watching over it the entire time."
John Fleming can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8716.