Desire is the magical reagent driving all life. The will to produce, to reproduce, to deliver.
With Death and the Maiden, playwright Ariel Dorfman explores desire: political, sexual, and personal by resurrecting the classical ideal of dancing with death behind both Franz Schubert’s string quartet and his own brushes with ruin. That exploration has been propped up for Kansas City audiences at Union Station’s City Stage by Kansas City Actor’s Theater (KCAT).
Though set in a conjured place within a fictitious context, it doesn’t take leaps to assume Doorman’s Death is informed by the infamous Chilean golpe de estado dethroning Presidente Salvador Allende by United States supported Augusto Pinochet.
However, productions of Death and the Maiden have been sprouting up since 2016, in an effort to contextualize a Trump climate, particularly in light of a New York Times op-ed by Dorfman himself cinching together the parallels between a 1970 United States manipulated Chile and a 2015 alleged Russia manipulated United States.
With its beautifully and simply executed interpretation helmed by Kansas City colossus Cinnamon Schultz, KCAT admittedly joins in with a rigorously verbal international chorus taking this nation to task for its perceived political irresponsibility.
In Death and the Maiden, the pure and innocent want of the citizen is embodied by Paulina Salas (Vanessa Severo), a woman abducted and then tortured at the hands of Dr. Miranda and Roberto Miranda (Robert Gibby Brand). She now holds the doctor captive at gunpoint, personifying the corruption of that innocence.
Paulina is married to Gerardo (Rusty Sneary), once a victim of the previous state and now a high-level employee of an evolving one. Their ill-fated threesome of crime and punishment builds into a tangled thriller of uncertainty and forces them to come to terms with who they really are, what will make them alive, and what they truly desire. Revenge or freedom.
A play of duality, Death and the Maiden is powerful in its emotional embankment pressing at the edge, but avoids becoming contentious in its political criticism because of an almost unintelligible narrative. In part because of the smart staging, the story is hyper-focused on the dynamics between the three and the socio-political storm they represent.
There is a split picture window in the Salas-Escobar living room where Miranda is kept prisoner and in the distance the waves of the Pacific crash. Darkness like what Paulina must have experienced while blindfolded by her captors becomes a motif. We hear the very effective, mournful cry of violins and we see those waves.
A haunting sensory experience to accompany the chilling dance between Severo and Brand, they recreate the torment she has experienced these past 15 years. Brand is magnificent in his portrayal of an affable Dr. Miranda, holding the moments, finessing them as his Miranda teeters between possible victim and probable fiend.
At first, it’s not clear where we are, who this couple is, what this is all about. Then, in darkness, we are oriented.
City Stage at Union Station
Through January 27
Robert Gibby Brand, Vanessa Severo, and Rusty Sneary