Some plays ask questions and some plays answer them. Ariel Dorfman’s Death and the Maiden is squarely in the former category. Mixing psychological mystery with a Boallian theatrical method, the play takes a long, hard look at the cause-and-effect relationships in oppressive societies (as well as their aftermath). The work was an ambitious one for Minneapolis’s Nimbus Theatre Company to take on, since the play demands a huge amount of emotional dexterity from its actors: Paulina as both the victim and the empowered, Gerardo as one in love with both his wife and the law, and then Roberto, who must walk a tightrope between innocent sufferer and malignant rapist. It’s the emotive equivalent of a gymnastic floor routine. Luckily, more often than not the cast members stick their landings.
Death and the Maiden, a play written by Ariel Dorfman and directed by Liz Neerland. Presented by Nimbus Theatre Company through November 30 at the Minneapolis Theatre Garage, 711 W. Franklin Ave. For tickets ($10-$15) and information, see nimbustheatre.com.
Director Liz Neerland has wisely not taken many liberties with the piece, staging it, as was intended, in a country that is coming to terms with its oppressive recent past. Delta Rae Giordano’s Paulina is a woman still recovering from the torture and rape that was inflicted on her by agents of the former regime, now 15 years gone. Paulina’s experience and the psychological effects of rape and torture create a level of uncertainty in her character, especially when she confronts her accused rapist, Roberto (Gabriele Angieri Jr.). Can her testimony be trusted? Is she an empowered victim or is her lust for revenge blinding her to the truth? These are questions that Giordano must embody in the complexity of her character, a task which she isn’t quite up to. To be fair, she has by far the play’s most demanding role; still, lines that should have been emotionally charged fell flat. Where the audience could have been completely enveloped in Paulina’s plight, Giordano’s detachment from her character makes it difficult to empathize with her.
By contrast, Matthew Greseth is brilliant as Girardo, the fulcrum between his wife and the accused. Girardo is purportedly a strict letter-of-the-law type of guy, but in his interactions with his wife as well as with Roberto, we see his humanity revealed in emotions bubbling just below the surface. When they erupt, unlike his wife he never gives in to them completely. A man of Girardo’s nature always maintains a modicum of restraint, even as he struggles against competing desires. It is Greseth’s portrayal of this conflict within Girardo’s character that wins our sympathy.
Probably the finest performance, however, is delivered by Angieri as Roberto. The poker-faced character is impossible to read. Is he guilty? Innocent? His eyes betray nothing, and we are intrigued by his plight, never sure whether we should pity or despise him. Where Angieri could have chosen to play it one way or the other, he wisely keeps us guessing. It’s a masterful piece of acting, and one in keeping with the play’s intended purpose: to leave the judgement up to the audience.
If Death and the Maiden were a soap opera, everything would be tidily resolved—with someone’s long-lost evil twin owing up to the guilt. Dorfman doesn’t let his audience off so easily.
Jon Behm is a Minneapolis-based photographer and writer. While his specialty is music, Jon has a wide variety of interests that tend to take him all over the Twin Cities on a daily basis. He is production photographer for this staging of Death and the Maiden.