A Simple Theatre's Death and the Maiden is taut political drama

An auspicious debut, with a riveting perfomance by Giles Davies.

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Ariel Dorfman’s Death and the Maiden is about two kinds of madness – the madness of nations and that of human beings.

The unnamed South American country in which Maiden takes place has only recently recovered from national lunacy – from a time of mass murder and torture. One of its victims – Paulina Escobar, played in the current A Simple Theatre production by Roxanne Fay – has been cursed with a different type of insanity.

Even though her country has returned to “normal,” she still senses danger at every moment, abusers arriving with every car noise, rapists lurking in every dark corner. When a seemingly harmless Good Samaritan named Dr. Roberto Miranda (Giles Davies) turns up at her doorstep, Paulina is convinced that he’s the man that subjected her to electric shocks and sexually assaulted her when she was a political prisoner.

The fact that she was blindfolded through all this abuse doesn’t occur to her as an impediment: she’s sure she recognizes the man’s voice and scent, attacks him, ties him up, and effectively puts him on trial. Her husband Gerardo (Steve Garland) tries to reason with her, but she’s too damaged and terrorized to see any ambiguities.

And even Gerardo has to wonder whether she might be right. After all, Miranda has a cassette of Schubert’s Death and the Maiden quartet in his car – and it was this that her torturer played repeatedly as he was harming her.

And Miranda’s alibis have curious holes in them at times, as if they might after all be lies. Is it possible that paranoid Paulina has actually identified the right man? And can any country that’s been through such a nightmare ever regain anything like sanity?

A Simple Theatre’s fine, if not revelatory, production at The [email protected] makes all these issues prominent and raises the play far above the obvious question of mistaken identity. Tautly directed by Gavin Hawk – who founded the new company with Meg Heimstead and Fay – this version of Maiden is solid enough to remind us that even now there are regimes – in China, Myanmar, Syria and elsewhere – where the government has declared war on the population, and has reduced civil life to a low-grade daily terror.

But if the production is strong, only one of the performances is truly riveting. This superlative belongs to Giles Davies, who as the man essentially kidnapped by Paulina, displays anger, fear, mockery, bravado and craven acquiescence with such quicksilver changes from one to another, you don’t dare take your eyes off him. Davies has only been appearing for a couple of years on area stages, but he’s rapidly become one of the surest bets in any play, whether its freeFall’s Midsummer Night’s Dream or Gorilla’s The Lion in Winter.

Fay and Garland are also top actors – worthy award-winners with outsize talents – but in this case they don’t give us much to think about beyond the obvious. Fay’s Paulina is fierce, peremptory, indignant, but watching her for 90 minutes one doesn’t see any more elusive levels that might give the role depth and real resonance. (It also doesn’t help that neither she nor Garland looks the least bit Hispanic – a problem when they’re named Paulina and Gerardo Escobar.)

As for Garland, he turns in a decent performance, but he so often appears breathless and flustered, you can’t help but wish for other colors in his palette.

Hawk’s direction is consistently skillful, though, and Lauren Atchison’s elegantly simple set – some seating areas and a few doors, backed by a wall-size sheet of classical music – makes the most of the Studio’s potential. And what a thrill it is to hear Schubert’s portentous music during the production. One couldn’t ask for a better accompaniment to this drama of pain, terror and revenge.

As a citizen of Chile, Dorfman is usually thought to be writing about his own country in his tale of a nation emerging from brutal military rule. But as any Amnesty International member can tell you, there are still too many societies on this globe subject to the blackjack and the electric prod. By bringing us Death and the Maiden, A Simple Theatre not only entertains us, it enlightens us, and maybe even radicalizes us.

That’s not to be discounted – for the most part, political theater never comes to the Bay area. There’s a gap that needs filling. And another reason to be glad that Hawk and Company have arrived.

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