Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, October, 1999
“Death and the Maiden” is an intense and intimate play, and so I wondered why Williamstheatre chose to perform it on the MainStage at the AMT. I have never been to a college production that has packed that house, and the idea of three actors rattling around on that big stage while a handful of hardy audience members rattling around in the darken seats beyond was a strange one when the DownStage was right over there. I know that the Frosh Review is running there, but surely there were other venues on campus for that production. Whoever is managing the performance spaces at Williams needs to have their head examined.
When I entered the MainStage last night it took me a few seconds to realize that I was not supposed to sit in the regular audience seats. The set on the stage seemed to project out in to the audience, and I had just entered a proscenium theatre. I sit here and you perform there and all’s right with the world. Instead I was led up on to the stage where I discovered bleacher-type seating had been built in the wings on either side of the stage. The steeply raked seating levels and the rock-hard metal folding chairs that adorned them had been painted a fetching shade of red, but that did not really alleviate the discomfort or the danger involved in navigating them and then spending quality time seated there.
I could spend paragraphs trying to describe this torturous seating arrangement for you, but let me put it succintly in one sentence that makes it all clear. I question whether this arrangement meets building and fire codes. I can just see some wealthy first-year parent pitching off of the bleachers or breaking their leg falling off of the black on black levels of the stage floor and suing the college for all it is worth. An odd way to introduce new parents to the theatrical offerings of Williams College.
Three paragraphs and I haven’t talked about the play yet. What does that tell you? Well, I can tell you that while you are jammed together tightly, sitting on miserably uncomfortable seats under blazing hot theatrical lights (don’t wear a sweater!) miserably uncomfortable things are happening on the stage as well.
“Death and the Maiden” is a highly-praised 1991 work by Chilean playwright Ariel Dorfman that recreates one country’s struggle to achieve and maintain democracy after years living under a brutal fachist regime in microcosm through the chance meeting of three people. Paulina (Phoebe Geer) and Gerardo (Jason Greenberg) Escobar are living quietly in their handsome beach house. Gerardo is a brilliant young lawyer who has just been appointed by the President to the newly formed commission which will investigate the human rights crimes of the former government. Paulina was a medical student 18 years ago when she was kidnapped and tortured by government agents. Her life has never been her own since. Gerardo gets a flat tire on his way home, and he is rescued by Dr. Roberto Miranda (Robert Seitelman), whom Paulina immediately believes is one of the men who tortured her, although she was blindfolded all during her captivity. She takes both men hostage and exacts the revenge that her deeply wounded mind demands.
Dorfman lived through a bloody dictatorship and military coup in Chile when he supported Salvador Allende over General Augusto Pinochet and ended up spending 17 years in exile. Director David Eppel is a white South African who has witnessed the atrocities of apartheid. I had high hopes that this combination of experience would produce a powerful production of a powerful play, but, of course, this is college theatre and so the actors are young yuppy-puppies who can barely relate to the flat tire crisis, let alone the concepts of torture and the struggle for democracy. Some plays really demand performers with the life experience that only age can give, and this is one of them.
I realize that the uncomfortable seating arrangement may be an attempt by Eppel and set designer Hugh Landwehr to force the audience to feel some miniscule portion of the tortures inflicted on the characters in the play. And I realize from glancing through the script that it was Dorfman’s intention that the audience should be able to see itself, hence the two facing banks of bleachers where the audience members opposite you become a part of the performance. But I would argue that Dorfman intended his audience to make his audience think about questions of justice versus the inherent unjustness of human nature – not how much their rear ends hurt. People cannot contemplate larger issues until their basic needs are met.
“Death and the Maiden” is an important work. It has been made into a film, directed by Roman Polanski, starring Sigourney Weaver, Ben Kingsley, and Stuart Wilson. I would recommend renting it and watching from a comfortable seat in your own home.
“Death and the Maiden” runs October 21-23 and 28-30 on the MainStage at the Adams Memorial Theatre, 1000 Main Street, Williamstown. The show runs two hours and ten minutes with one intermission. Gun shots are fired during the play, and there are graphic verbal descriptions of rape and torture. Call the Williamstheatre box office at 413-597-2425 for tickets and information.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 1999