CONTENT WARNING: SEXUAL VIOLENCE AND TORTURE
Ad Astra’s production of Death and the Maiden is a gripping, terrifying experience that has the audience on the edge of their seats. This production deals with some extremely sensitive and highly traumatizing material in a way that is respectful and authentic.
Written in 1990 by Chilean playwright, Ariel Dorfman, Death and the Maiden premiered at the Royal Court Theatre in London in 1991. It unveils the horrific experience of a former political prisoner, Paulina Salas, who survived torture, sexual assault, and rape in an unnamed Latin American country during an oppressive regime led by a sadistic doctor whose face she never saw. The doctor played Schubert’s classic String Quartet No. 14, known as Death and the Maiden, throughout the assault thus giving rise to the name of the play.
The tale unfolds years later, following the fall of the regime, when Paulina recognizes the voice of Dr. Miranda as that of her rapist and takes him captive in an isolated house in the country where she lives with her husband, Gerardo. Paulina and Gerardo interrogate Dr. Miranda to extract a confession, who continues to maintain his innocence. The audience can never be truly sure if Dr. Miranda is a terrifying abuser, or an innocent man wrongly accused by a woman traumatized.
Dorfman’s script explores the struggles of those living in a country post-oppression making the transition to democracy as well as the horrific scars left behind from torture and assault. Death and the Maiden is Dorfman’s most successful play and has been adapted for film by Roman Polanski as well as served as the inspiration for another film, The Secrets We Keep.
Directed by Jacqueline Kerr, Ad Astra’s rendition of Death and the Maiden is spine-tingling. Jacqueline manages the serious text of this play with sensitivity and skill. It is clear that she is passionate about providing an authentic and respectful portrayal of these events. Jacqueline’s excellent direction moves the actors effortlessly through the small black-box theatre, creating a world within the stage we can see and also outside of the stage which we can’t see. This makes the production feel very realistic.
Jacqueline also created the stunning set design, lighting design and sound design for this production which effectively supports the action on stage. In particular, the nostalgic light blue, beach-shack colours of the house are perfect. The faint sound of seagulls in the background and of course the weighty delivery of Schubert’s Death and the Maiden all serve to add another layer of realism.
The cast for this production is small but the actors are mighty powerful. Tom Coyle portrays the illusive Dr. Roberto Miranda which outstanding skill. Tom is perfect in this role. He manages to convince the audience that he may indeed just be an innocent man wrongly accused by a mentally ill woman. Yet somehow at the same time, it is also easy to believe him the perpetrator of these horrific acts. Tom should be applauded for his work on this production and his portrayal of Dr. Miranda.
One of the key aspects of this production is the reversal of the relationship between Paulina and her alleged abuser as she takes him captive. This requires an immense level of trust between Dr. Miranda (Tom Coyle) and Paulina Salas (Sandra Harman) as they traverse extremely difficult dialogue and actions. Both Tom and Sandra should be praised for their ability to build trust and to deliver this complicated relationship with authenticity. Bravo!
As Paulina, Sandra Harman is exceptional. This is such a difficult role to play which requires the actor to immerse themselves in the mind of a character who has suffered immense trauma and Sandra does so with heart. Sandra’s performance is so authentic that it is hard to believe she is acting. Sandra’s tears and neurotic outbursts feel terribly real as she draws the audience into the emotional world of Paulina. She is a truly marvelous performer.
Rounding out this small trio cast is the wonderful Gary Farmer-Trickett in the role of Gerardo Escobar. Gary’s performance as Paulina’s husband is heartwarming and relatable. Gary and Sandra have a chemistry that shines through on the stage as they deliver a couple that feels real. Gary is a great casting choice for Gerardo as his sweet, kindhearted delivery is a welcome change from Tom Coyle’s brash Dr. Miranda; showcasing a different take on masculinity.
Overall, Ad Astra’s production of Death and the Maiden is deeply moving and heart breaking. At the end of the production the audience is so moved that there is a noticeable pause, a moment of complete silence, before the applause starts. This is a truly spectacular production that deals with extremely heavy content and really makes the audience question, challenging them to examine their own beliefs and sparking fervent post-show debates about the truth. Bravo!
Death and the Maiden closes this weekend with limited tickets still on sale here! Book now!