“Death and the Maiden,” currently at Toluca Lake’s Sidewalk Theatre, is a courageous but technically and emotionally limited production. The SkyPilot Theatre Company deserves praise for staging this brutally relevant show about truth and justice.
However, doing right by this stunning play means having the resources — the time and the money and the focus — to create this parallel universe as completely as possible.
The play begins in a deceptively peaceful way. All alone in a quiet beach house sits the lovely Paulina. A breeze pulls softly at her curtains while she watches the glimmer of water against her walls. It’s the perfect background for what playwright Ariel Dorfman is really writing about — outrage.
The play’s title refers to a song by Franz Schubert. Fifteen years earlier, student and political prisoner Paulina Salas (the beautiful and touching Enci) had heard “Death and the Maiden” played day after day, as she was blindfolded, tortured and repeatedly raped.
Since then, Paulina has married decent, patient Gerard (Eric Curtis Johnson in a wonderfully honest performance). Gerard is that rare individual, striving hard to do the right thing, when that’s never an easy thing to do.
Then one night, Gerard is given a lift home by kindly Dr. Miranda (Benton Jennings bravely and capably taking on one of the ugliest characters in modern theater history).
According to Paulina, Dr. Miranda has the same voice, the same skin, even the same smell as the sadistic doctor who’d orchestrated her torture years earlier. As it turns out, Dr. Miranda certainly isn’t the pleasant and unassuming man he initially pretends to be. But is he really that same doctor? Or is Paulina twice as crazy as Gerard suspects she is? And how do you reason with a woman holding a gun and demanding a confession, if there’s nothing to confess?
It’s clear that this is a very talented cast, dealing with too many shortcuts. More time is needed, whether in rehearsals or performances, to find extra dimensions for each key character. Paulina is more than just irrationality and anger. Gerard is more than just kindness and decency. The doctor is more than monstrous deceit.
As to technical aspects, the set by Danuta Tomzynski needs something more, something open, something lighter, to suggest how truly lovely Paulina’s home must be. Instead, the producers chose to stage the play within the confines of the tiny black box that’s the Sidewalk Studio Theatre.
It seems as if Dado chose to work within all these limitations to the best of her ability. That’s a legitimate choice, and she does a good job. But in the context of a play about what’s worth fighting and dying for, the staging needs more commitment, more rage, more startling revelation.
At this point, the SkyPilot Theatre Company has earned community support, and its members are smart enough to ask for it in all the right ways. This “Death and the Maiden” is still a cut above the majority of local low-budget productions. Hopefully, with a little more time, money and focus, the SkyPilot Theatre Company will be amazing.
MARY BURKIN is a Burbank actress and playwright and Glendale lawyer.