THEATER REVIEW : 'Death and the Maiden': Passion but Not Tension

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

A woman accuses the man she says tortured and raped her. The man denies it. The woman's husband, tormented by uncertainty, looks from one to the other. Who is telling the truth?

That is the crux of Ariel Dorfman's "Death and the Maiden" at the San Diego Repertory Theatre, a play that reverberates with the memory of tortures that became tragically routine under the 1973-1990 dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet in the writer's native Chile.

But the scenario also cuts to the heart of universal issues--of whom to believe when a woman accuses a man of sexual harassment or rape.

The West Coast premiere of "Death and the Maiden" at the Rep's Lyceum Space suggests both the political issues that inspired the work and the sexual issues that deepen the tension. The casting of the Rep's three-person show may not come close to generating the excitement that Glenn Close, Gene Hackman and Richard Dreyfuss did on Broadway last year, but the cast of Rose Portillo, Marco Rodriguez and Walter Krochmal is committed and passionate in their portrayals.

The one glaring fault in the otherwise intelligent, thoughtful direction by Rep artistic director Douglas Jacobs, is insufficient ambiguity about the accused's guilt. And every question mark that is erased robs the play of tension, driving it closer to didactic predictability.

The determined, desperate performance of Portillo as Paulina Salas provides the backbone of the play. Salas was tortured--under constant blindfold--by her government 15 years before the story begins. When a doctor, Roberto Miranda (Krochmal), helps her husband (Rodriguez) home after his car has a flat tire, she believes she recognizes the physician's voice as that of her chief tormentor.

She ties him up and holds him at gunpoint, determined to seek her vengeance while her husband, the newly appointed commissioner investigating human rights violations, looks helplessly on, begging his wife to let the man go.

But while Portillo conveys the shadow of a doubt that comes from years of instability, Krochmal seems too clearly guilty and Rodriguez too quickly convinced of the man's guilt too early on in the play.

Jacobs' best achievement here is that he simplifies the setting, keeping the focus where it belongs--on the people. Accordingly, the design elements take a back seat, from Jane La Motte's spare set design, lit by John Martin, and Judy Watson's unfussy costumes. The only image that lingers--other than Portillo's tormented face--is the wail of the sea, suggested by Michael Roth's sound design, giving a sense of the unstoppable forces just outside the door.

* "Death and the Maiden," Lyceum Space, 79 Horton Plaza, San Diego. Tuesdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m, Sundays 7 p.m., Sunday matinees at 2, Wednesday matinee May 26 only. Spanish performances June 3, 4, 8, 9, 12 and 13. Ends June 13. $21-$24. (619) 235-8025. Running time: 2 hours, 8 minutes.

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