It’s an unsettling moment of intimacy. As a terrified, gagged man sits, tied to a chair, his captor — a fragile-looking, gun-toting brunette — pulls up a seat at his side, so near that their bodies touch. “We’re rather cozy here, aren’t we, like this?” she muses quietly. “Like two old pensioners sitting on a bench in the sun.” For the first time in 15 years, the woman named Paulina is physically close to the man who once tortured her.
After her decade-plus of unshared post-traumatic suffering, the proximity of her abuser — the one person who really understands what she went through — is, on one level, a relief.
The sequence is just one of many arresting, emotionally layered moments in La Mafia Teatro’s staging of Ariel Dorfman’s play “La Muerte y La Doncella (Death and the Maiden),” which was part of the Kennedy Center’s World Stages festival. A Chilean production performed in Spanish with English titles, the 90-minute drama has an innate intensity: Long exiled from Chile, playwright Dorfman wrote his script in response to the country’s experience during and after the brutal dictatorship of Gen. Augusto Pinochet. But director Moira Miller’s staging is also notable for its rich and nuanced portrait of Paulina, and for artful musings on personal and institutional power.
An Olivier Award winner when it was first performed in England in the early 1990s (Roman Polanski subsequently directed a movie version), “La Muerte y La Doncella” tells how, during their country’s transition to democracy, Paulina’s husband, Gerardo (César Sepúlveda), brings home a roadside Samaritan who has offered help with a flat tire. Paulina (Antonia Zegers) identifies the stranger, Doctor Miranda (Erto Pantoja), as the sadist who tormented and raped her when she was a political prisoner. To the horror of Gerardo, who has just been appointed to an important post investigating dictatorship-era atrocities, Paulina demands a confession from the doctor, who denies any guilt.
Zegers invests Paulina with both vulnerability and a strength born of desperation. Twisting her hands and wiping her eyes as she talks shakily to her husband before the doctor’s arrival, she seems borderline unhinged; but when she is finally able to confront her ultimate fear and talk openly about the horrors she has experienced, she reveals unexpected steeliness — even a hint of swagger. Thanks in part to her poignant interactions with Sepúlveda’s sensitive yet somehow clueless Gerardo, the production eloquently captures the mirroring of personal and political crisis, while underscoring the role of gender in the whole explosive mix.
In an inspired touch, the walls of Eduardo Jiménez’s modernist beach-house set move towards the audience during the performance, shrinking the stage space, as if to emphasize the increasing pressures on the characters. On a less positive note, the English titles were hard to follow — often running different characters’ lines together — and were sometimes out of sync.
“La Muerte y La Doncella” has not been the only recent World Stages offering to contemplate how individuals cope with the aftermath of horrific national trauma.
The Mexican production “Incendios,” directed by Hugo Arrevillaga for the company known as Tapioca Inn, is a Spanish-language version of Lebanese-Canadian playwright Wajdi Mouawad’s epic about family secrets and wartime brutality. (Both plays’ brief runs ended Sunday.) Though eye-catching and grippingly acted, “Incendios” is much less effective than “La Muerte y La Doncella,” because the script is overlong and burdened with plot and mythic and poetic reachings.
But Arrevillaga has hit on a nifty central staging conceit for the production: A long table made of unvarnished planks runs down the middle of the Terrace Gallery; the audience sits on either side of this lone set element, which represents various objects and locales — a grave, a prison, a road, a courtroom, etc. — as the story progresses. Most memorably, broken into slanting segments, it becomes the terrain of a war-scarred country.
Rebeca Trejo and Jorge León deliver poised, spirited depictions of adult twins who are tasked in their late mother’s will with visiting relatives in her homeland. In flashbacks — and in scenes featuring some implausibly chatty witnesses — we learn of the horrors that the twins’ mother, Nawal, experienced in her youth.
Over the course of three hours, “Incendios” ponders issues of ongoing importance in our troubled world: how to make sure victims’ stories are heard; how to cope with the human urge for revenge; how to achieve healing and reconciliation without denying the past. “La Muerte y La Doncella” covers the same terrain far more gracefully and succinctly.
by Ariel Dorfman. Directed by Moira Miller; music, Pablo Villalabeitia; costume design, Pablo Núnez; assistant director, Macarena Saquel. In Spanish with English titles. Ninety minutes.
by Wajdi Mouawad; translated into Spanish by Humberto Pérez Mortera; translated into English by Linda Gaboriau. Directed by Hugo Arrevillaga; set design, Auda Caraza and Atenea Chávez; lighting design, Roberto Paredes and Auda Caraza; tour lighting design, Miguel Angel Velázquez; wardrobe design, Mario Marín del Río. In Spanish with English titles.