Death and the Maiden (Ad Astra)
November 19 – December 4
Chilean writer Ariel Dorfman’s 1991 play “Death and the Maiden” is a lot. Named after Schubert’s dramatic quartet, the moral thriller is about former political prisoner Paulina (Sandra Harman), who believes that a stranger who comes to her beach house home is the man who, under the country’s former military dictatorship, brutalised her many years prior.
The story, said to be based on events in Chile (though it could be in any South or Central American dictatorship) opens to a detailed set representing the home of Paulina and her husband Geraldo (Gary Farmer-Trickett), a human rights lawyer in a country that is in transition from dictatorship to democracy. She is waiting nervously, even pulling a gun when another car arrives after Gerardo’s vehicle has broken down and he has been offered a lift by a friendly doctor, Roberto (Tom Coyle). Though she never saw him at the time, due to being blindfolded, Paulina is convinced the voice she is now hearing is that of the state agent responsible for her rape and torture 15 years earlier. She knows it is him.
Roberto is bound and gagged at gunpoint as Paulina interrogates and demands that he confesses his crime against her or else. It is a tense setup that brings a lot of intrigue as the audience is forced to consider if he did it and if she will do it. The three act play contains dense dialogue more than action, meaning that its success rests very much with its performances. Harman captures both the mania and fragility of the deeply traumatised and angry Paulina. In particular, her monologue recall of the horrific event is riveting. The story’s dramatic development is also aided by the physical commitment of the production’s actors. Coyle spends the majority of the play struggling against being tied to a kitchen chair and when his gag is removed, he layers the character so that we both think he may be capable of perpetrating the sexual torture of woman, and also a potential victim himself. Meanwhile, Harman’s whole body physical reaction to hearing Roberto’s voice, adds to the intensity of the turning point, and Farmer-Trickett’s body language as Paulina’s husband Geraldo coveys some moments of support that gives a little depth to this least developed role.
The three-character piece contains a lot of confronting language and even some moments of amusement amongst the grim events. Ad Astra has created a considered, claustrophobic experience that appropriately metaphors the experience of characters in “Death and the Maiden”, who are all prisoned in their pasts. The daring choice also presents big themes for audience consideration. Indeed, the moral debate that arises from its ethical arguments around guilt, repentance and the value of vengeance leads to much post-show contemplation and question about who really is the victim.