Friday, March 1, 2019

Death and the Maiden - Red Sandcastle Theatre


Red Sandcastle Theatre’s production of Ariel Dorfman’s three-hander political thriller about the aftermath of dictatorship, Death and the Maiden, playing from February 27-March 3 at 922 Queen Street East is worth the trek. The intimacy of the space lends an intensity to the dramatic action, which involves the machinations of torture, the gendering of power, and the limits of truth-telling in the context of a country transitioning from dictatorship to democracy in which all citizens are traumatized and in which democracy might just be a mask upon continuing systems of domination. 
Director Deborah Ann Frankel (who also designed the set and lighting) emphasises, sometimes subtly and sometimes overtly, the nuances of gender and the limits of power in her blocking and staging in what I consider an effective interpretation. The minimalism of the set and lighting works well for the impoverishment and devastation that any country pulling itself out of dictatorship faces. Of the numerous questions that Frankel lists in her Director’s Notes, the most poignant, and the one most thoroughly investigated in this production is: “How can those who were tortured coexist in the same land?” 

Amber Mackereth gives a raw and sometimes hilariously wry performance as Paulina Lorca, a woman approaching middle age who was part of a radical student-run press during the dictatorship and who survived torture and refused to give up the name of her partner (and now husband). In Mackereth’s hands, Pauline is a brassy survivor who managed maintain a passion for life and who takes decisive action and refuses to bend to the wishes of either her husband or her apparent torturer (and now captive), who both paint her as a “crazy bitch”—that old sexist trope. It might seem unusual to laugh in a play on such a serious topic but there are moments that are truly cackle worthy—in the best way— and they all involve Mackereth’s choices. 

Andrew McGillvary gives a tender performance of Gerardo Escobar, the man for whom Pauline endured torture to protect and to whom she is now married. As a lawyer newly appointed to a (flawed) commission on torture set up by the new democratic government, Gerardo is caught between his idealism, his moral inertia, and his love for his wife and McGillvary does a good job of exposing this character’s fatal flaws while charming us. 

Scott McCulloch gives a powerful performance as Doctor Roberto Miranda, the man that Pauline accuses of torturing and raping her. In McCulloch’s hands, a mild-mannered doctor can transform into a salty-mouthed power fiend and back in a split second, a chilling portrait of how power-lust and relations of domination can hide in plain sight. Cliff Saunders’ deft fight choreography was the glue that tied the physical performances to the emotional quagmire of the piece. All in all, it was a thought provoking night of independent theatre. 


First performed on stage in 1991, Ariel Dorfman’s political thriller Death and The Maiden is the dramatic exploration of a country’s uneasy transition from dictatorship to democracy.  

One dark night, the husband’s car breaks down and he is given a lift home by a friendly stranger.  His wife believes she recognizes the stranger‘s voice— is he the torturer who raped her some years before?  She subdues the stranger and puts him forcibly on trial for crimes against the state.    


The play asks hard questions about compatriots living in a restored democracy: How can those who tortured and those who were tortured co-exist in the same land?  What of justice and equality in a military dictatorship?  How do we forget the past regime without risking its recreation in the future? Is it legitimate to sacrifice truth to ensure peace?   

The play also asks a universal question about humanity: How do we reach the truth when lying has become a habit?  

Death and The Maiden is a pertinent and important piece today. How may we as Canadians discourage military sanctioned violence and torture abroad if we do not recognize torture in our  own society? How many women, children and men have been tortured, yet our state accuses their perpetrators only of abuse?  

Death and The Maiden warns us of what happens when democracy fails and torture becomes a political tool. 

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