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It's hard to care about the characters in "Death in the Maiden"

Who cares if Dr. Roberto Miranda tortured and raped Paulina Escobar?

That's what I found myself thinking about two-thirds of the way through Death and the Maiden, the debut production of a Simple Theatre, which I saw Friday at the [email protected] in St. Petersburg.

I had been looking forward to Ariel Dorfman's play, which is set in an unnamed country much like Chile in the years after the removal of the military junta ruled by Augusto Pinochet. It's about a woman kidnapping a doctor whom she believes was her torturer and rapist when she was the prisoner of a fascist regime. Her husband, a civil rights lawyer, has to act as mediator between his wife and the doctor. In a convenient twist, the doctor helped the lawyer deal with a flat tire, then ends up in a horror show when he drops by the couple's house for a nightcap.

For edgy entertainment, all this sounded promising, combining elements of a psychological drama with a political theme. But like a lot of thrillers, the play becomes ridiculous.

Part of the problem is that Dorf­man doesn't have much of interest to say about life under fascism. About the closest he comes to making an original point is the suggestion that Paulina (Roxanne Fay), driven crazy by her horrible experience, is the dictator in this little three-character world. When crazy people are in power, her husband says, you have to indulge them.

Then there is the issue of the playwright's sexual politics. He sets up a situation in which Miranda (Giles Davies) and Paulina's husband, Gerardo (Steve Garland), bond over booze and line up in manly, rational opposition to the nutty woman with a gun. In one of several lurid, sensationalistic touches, Paulina pulls off her panties, stuffs them in Miranda's mouth and tapes it shut — surely a male fantasy of a rape victim's revenge.

Logic is not the strong suit of Paulina's conviction. She was blindfolded in prison but claims to recognize Miranda's voice and smell. What clinches the deal is that the doctor quotes Nietzsche and has a cassette of Schubert's Death and the Maiden in his car. Her captor played a recording of the quartet all 14 times he raped her. And playgoers get no respite either, as snatches of the quartet are heard during scene changes.

A play like this demands a taut, disciplined performance, and it doesn't get anything like that from the Simple Theatre cast, especially not from Garland, whose portrayal of the ambitious lawyer is so hysterical that it verges on the unwatchable. Fay tries to take a cool approach to Paulina, but it's hard not to go over the top when you're waving a pistol and wearing a filmy pink nighty. Even Davies, normally an actor of impeccable technique, succumbs to melodrama in Miranda's big speech.

The production, directed by Gavin Hawk, is indeed simple, taking place on a single set whose color scheme is a bit obvious: a door, pillows, a candle and the notes on a musical score that covers the back wall are all red in Lauren Atchison's design.

Death and the Maiden transfers this week to Tampa for three performances at the Mainstage Theatre of the Hillsborough Community College Ybor City, E Palm Avenue and N 14th Street. 7:30 p.m. Thursday-Saturday. Run time: 90 minutes, no intermission. $5, $15. (813) 259-6490; [email protected]

John Fleming can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8716.

It's hard to care about the characters in "Death in the Maiden" 09/13/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, September 13, 2011 8:01pm]
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