World Stages: International Theatre Festival – ‘La Muerte y La Doncella’ at The Kennedy Center

The World Stages: International Theater Festival takes the center stage at The Kennedy Center, March 10-30, 2014 bringing together some of today’s most exciting theatrical visionaries presenting an unprecedented focus on theatre from around the globe. Twenty-two theatrical offerings from nineteen countries, and every continent except Antarctica, are represented in this theater Festival of dynamic stories examining contemporary issues and universal themes. Curated by Alicia Adams, Vice President, International Programming, thirteen fully staged productions will be featured including nine U.S. premieres, as well as four theater-focused installations, panel discussions, two staged readings, and two Directors forums.

Cesar Sepulveda, Erto Pantoja, and Antonia Zegers. Photo courtesy of LA MAFIA Teatro(Chile.
Cesar Sepulveda, Erto Pantoja, and Antonia Zegers. Photo courtesy of LA MAFIA Teatro(Chile.

The delights in this extraordinary assembling of theatrical treasures comprise World Stages: International Theater Festival 2014 – The Kennedy Center’s first theater-focused international festival!

Vengeance is Mine – Review: La Muerte y La Doncella (Death and the Maiden)

Fifteen years ago while walking down the street away from her University class, Paulina Salas (Antonia Zegers) was kidnapped, thrown in a vehicle, blindfolded, and held a prisoner because of her political views.

Believing the man who savagely tortured her is alive.  A chance encounter brings her face to face with destiny. 

What follows is a three-character study, between the victim, the man she thinks is her oppressor, and her husband – the man caught in the middle.

Directed by Moira Miller, Chile’s LA MAFIA Teatro presents La Muerte y La Doncella (Death and the Maiden) the U.S. Premiere as part of the Kennedy Center’s World Stages: International Theater Festival.

Written in 1990, as an inspired metaphor for Chile’s painful transition to democracy, Ariel Dorfman’s 1992  Best New Play Olivier Award-winning, La Muerte y La Doncella (Death and the Maiden) still holds chilling relevance and global impact today more than twenty years later.  The Argentine Chilean playwright is recognized as one of the most important Latin American novelists and social critics of his time. In 1994 the explosive stage drama was turned into a film (Death and the Maiden) directed by Roman Polanski, starring Sigourney Weaver and Ben Kingsley.

During the regime of General Augusto Pinochet (1973-1990), thousands of Chilean citizens are said to have “disappeared.” Though originally not specifically set in Chile, (It could have been any country with a newly formed democratic government after a long period of dictatorship.) this brave, new Chilean version of La Muerte y La Doncella (Death and the Maiden) is about learning to live again in the aftermath of such an era.

Miller writes in the program notes, “I felt that all our country was bleeding inside … (and) I had the need to heal the heart of my country, and especially my own heart. We made some justice Ariel Dorfman’s words and in our own theatrical language.”

At the heart of this disorienting political drama and psychological thriller is a play that is as exciting intellectually as it is emotionally. Long after the physical scars have healed, the legacy of torture and how it affects the life and mind of a victim linger.

The subject overwhelms you, and as the characters in La Muerte y La Doncella (Death & the Maiden) grapple with questions of power, justice, truth and redemption, it is the audience who must determine for him/herself the answers.

The psychological edge and ambiguity and is the genius of Dorfman’s compelling masterpiece.

Lawyer, Gerardo Escobar (César Sepúlveda) has just been chosen to head a Commission on human rights violations that will investigate the crimes of the old Chilean dictatorship regime, when his car breaks down with a flat tire, he is helped by a seemingly kind stranger, Doctor Roberto Miranda (Erto Pantoja). The neighbor later unexpectedly stops by the house to visit.

For Paulina Salas, his wife, the immediate recognition of this ‘good neighbor’s’ voice is the sound of the devil himself fifteen years ago.

Still shattered by her torture experience, Paulina is a delicate and shaken woman who enjoys her privacy and solitude, and whose ‘living’ has been put on pause.

As lithe and fragile Paulina may seem at first, when Gerardo leaves the room, she sneaks up and knocks the Doctor over the head, bounds his hands and legs tying him to a chair in the living room, then gags him by taking off her underwear and stuffing them in his mouth.

Waving a revolver in her hand, Miranda is put on trial. The interrogation begins and the intensity heightens as the tables are turned.

The jailer has become the prisoner.

You are immediately engaged in her reality – concealed and controlled feelings, buried deep for more than fifteen years. Paulina confesses the rape violence and torture perpetrated upon her at his hands. The unimaginable atrocities executed by the terrorists of the old fascist regime have never before been entirely revealed, not even to her husband, Gerardo.

Paulina is shattered by her initial confrontation with her torturer.  Paulina’s pain and her anger are real. But the performance lacked the penetrating depth and lingering affected resonance that made me feel her pain. I believe it but didn’t but I didn’t feel it. The vehemence comes more from the power of Dorfman’s masterfully orchestrated words, not the sustaining horror and terror exhibited by Paulina and the machismo of Doctor Miranda (whose ‘threatened’ response was mostly a lackluster hunch with his head held low). The subtlety Zegers displays in her acting choices define internalized, controlled restraint as she wrestles with the rollercoaster ride of disturbing memories the dialogue implies.

Gerardo Escobar is conflicted. Escobar is a man of integrity and strong sense of fairness, and right and wrong. As he deals with uncovering the whole truth about Paulina’s past, he painfully deliberates the possibilities and forlorn realities of his career and their future, if Paulina kills him.

Is Doctor Miranda really the person that Paulina thinks he is?

Gerardo’s character reminds the audience of the difference between a right and just punishment, and otherwise.

The performance of Erto Pantoja (Doctor Roberto Miranda)and Antonia Zegers (Paulina Salas) fare well in their roles, but it is César Sepúlveda (Gerardo Escobar) who energizes the production with authenticity, forcing the drama to its critical edge. The dark character study of this intense ensemble is ultimately satisfying because no character was one-sided, and three are presented with their own history.

Themes of truth and justice inhabit this play, and we watch to see if Doctor Miranda really is the villain who oversaw the described oppressive wickedness.

Cesar Sepulveda and  Erto Pantoja. Photo courtesy of LA MAFIA Teatro(Chile).
Cesar Sepulveda and Erto Pantoja. Photo courtesy of LA MAFIA Teatro(Chile).

La Muerte y La Doncella (Death and the Maiden) is an unsettling thriller with devastating twists and uncomfortable turns where the outcome could go either way. As the power of forgiveness and acceptance looms, one of Franz Schubert’s most beloved chamber works, String Quartet No. 14 in D minor – known as Death and the Maiden – haunts the air.

Is justice a purely individual act for those who experience the atrocities themselves? Unable to take sides, we are forced to answer questions, most would prefer to never face – and too afraid of being wrong.

Right or wrong, there are no easy choices.

In Spanish with projected English titles. Recommended for mature audiences.

Running Time: 90 minutes, with no intermission.

La Muerte y La Doncella (Death and the Maiden) played March 15th and 16, 2014 in the Terrace Theatre at The Kennedy Center – 2700 F Street, NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 467-4600, or purchase them online. The closest metro station is Foggy Bottom/George Washington University. There is a FREE Kennedy Center Shuttle that departs from the metro station every 15 minutes from 9:45 a.m.-Midnight Monday-Friday, 10 a.m.-Midnight Saturdays, and noon-Midnight Sundays.


Read Sydney-Chanele Dawkins’ other reviews here of shows in the World Stages: International Theater Festival:

The Suit. 
Tapioca Inn: Incendios.
Death & the Maiden (La Muerte y La Doncella). 
Savannah Bay.
World Stages Festival YouTube channel.

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Sydney-Chanele Dawkins
Sydney-Chanele Dawkins is an award-winning feature filmmaker, film curator, film festival producer and a theater/film critic and arts writer. She also serves as an impassioned advocate for the Arts as Chair of the Alexandria Commission for the Arts in Alexandria, VA. Fearless. Tenacious. Passionate. Loyal. These characteristics best describe Sydney-Chanele's approach to life, her enthusiasm for live theater and the arts, and her cinephile obsession with world cinema. Her successful first film, 'Modern Love is Automatic' premiered at SXSW in Austin, Texas, and made its European debut at the Edinburgh Film Festival. She recently completed her third film, the animated - 'The Wonderful Woes of Marsh' - which is rounding the film festival circuit. In 2013, Sydney-Chanele produced the box office hit,Neil Simon's Rumors for the McLean Community Players at Alden Theater, Her next producing effort in 2014 is Pearl Cleage's 'Blues for an Alabama Sky' for Port City Playhouse. Programmer for Cinema Art Bethesda and Co Chair of the Film Program for Artomatic, Sydney-Chanele is the past Festival Director of the Alexandria Film Festival, the Reel Independent Film Festival,and Female Shorts & Video Showcase. She is active in leadership and programming positions with DC Metro area Film Festivals including: Filmfest DC, DC Shorts, the Washington Jewish Film Festival, Arabian Sights Film festival, and AFI Docs. Please feel free to contact me with your comments and questions - [email protected] [Note: Sydney-Chanele Dawkins passed away on July 8, 2015, at age 47, after a battle with Breast Cancer.]


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