Death and the Maiden, by Ariel Dorfman, one of the most notable scripts in contemporary Chilean theater, performed around the world with extraordinary success, has finally arrived in Havana.
The work has opened in Cuba for the first time at El Sótano Theater, in Havana’s Vedado neighborhood, performed by the Bernarda company directed by well-known Cuban movie, radio, and theater actor, Antonio (Tony) Arroyo, who began efforts to create the staging three years ago.
Written in 1990, Death and the Maiden is a superb piece of theater, distinguished by powerful action, excellent dialogue, and well-defined psychological characterizations.
The play tells the story of Paulina Salas, a woman who was tortured and raped 15 years earlier, during the military dictatorship in Chile. Later she is married and one day her husband Gerardo has car problems and gets a ride home with an unknown man, Dr. Roberto Miranda. Paulina believes that she recognizes the voice of her brutal torturer and kidnaps him, to try him and force him to confess his crimes.
She recalls that her tormentor listened to Franz Schubert’s String Quartet No. 14 in D minor, better known as “Death and the Maiden,” during the abuse.
In the lobby of El Sótano, one of Havana’s principal theaters, shortly before curtain call, I spoke briefly with Arroyo, responsible for the staging, the lighting design, and direction in general.
I asked him how he came upon the work:“A member of my group, Saúl Seijo, gave it to me, and when I read it, I was astonished and said: this is extraordinary, we have to do it. For us, it had all the requisites – few characters, minimal sets, and above all, was a very strong piece.” Regarding Dorfman’s involvement, he recalled:
“I contacted him in March of that year by email, and explained that in Cuba we couldn’t pay for the work, and he, a charming person, a lover of Cuba, granted me the reproduction rights, exclusively.”
In a letter to Arroyo, which the director reads at the beginning of the performance, Dorfman wrote: “The first staging in Cuba is of special significance to us... because of our affection for the Cuban people and our admiration for its cultural and revolutionary history, and also because it is a way to thank this people and its actors for their solidarity during the peaceful road to socialism of Allende and the hard years of the dictatorship’s repression, that followed the defeat of our project.”
Death and the Maiden has only three characters in a limited situation. The Cuban version features the performances of Lianet Alarcón as Paulina Salas; Saúl Seijo in the role of her husband Gerardo Escobar, and the torturer, Dr. Roberto Miranda, played by Roberto Leyva/Omar Durán.
I asked about the length of the two-hour piece: “The audience doesn’t move, and I learned many years ago that when people begin to move in their seats, something is wrong, and no one here moves; this leaves me calm and content.”
And the role of the sound track?
“It’s another character. A fundamental support for the tensions, to underline the actors’ movement. We have, of course, used the Schubert quartet as a lei motif, but also other sounds to recreate the pain that this woman is feeing, and the sensation of exhaustion and general narrative intensity.”
A change of direction for you?
“The experience has been vital to my work, since I like comedy, but I needed a change, to prove that things could work in another environment. My previous show was Infames, which is a comedy I wrote, with dark humor, and important doses of the absurd. It premiered at the Bertolt Brecht Theater and we were also here at El Sótano for eight weeks."
Death and the maiden is undoubtedly a landmark piece in contemporary theater. It has been performed in more than 100 countries, including the United States, where it was on Broadway in New York City, as early as 1992, directed byMike Nichols with the star performances of Glenn Close (Paulina), Richard Dreyfuss (Gerardo), and Gene Hackman (Roberto).
It was taken to the big screen by the great director Roman Polanski, with performances by recognized Hollywood actors: Sigourney Weaver (Paulina), Ben Kingsley (Roberto) and Stuart Wilson (Gerardo).
Thanks to Ariel Dorfman, to Tony Arroyo, and the Bernarda group for this gift, a premiere in Cuba of Death and the maiden, a story so full of content and reflection, told in a more direct, tight manner, in which even Schubert is suffocating. An absolute masterpiece.