‘Death and the Maiden’ Highlights Consequences of Torture

Phoebe Hammer, Arts Editor

Retribution and justice are coming to Little Theater this weekend. The Theater and Dance departments are staging Ariel Dorfman’s Death and the Maiden, a story of torture, morality and moving on.

Since its world premiere in the Royal Court Theatre in London in 1991, the play has been well-received as a dramatic work that examines the psychological consequences of living under a military government with little regard for human rights. The Theater department’s version, directed by College senior Sophie Weisskoff, will strive for the same excitement and moral ambiguity. Death and the Maiden is set in the 20th century in an unspecified country under a military dictatorship, where no one is safe and the truth can be twisted and unclear. It forces the audience to question the meaning of justice and how to heal citizens with a past of gross mistreatment by their own government.

College junior Erin Amlicke will lead the cast as Paulina Salas, a woman whose brutal questioning by the government ended with rape and torture by electrocution. Fifteen years after her abuse, she believes she has come face-to-face with her torturer, Dr. Roberto Miranda, played by College senior Ali Bianchi. Salas is forced to reconsider her relationship with her husband Gerardo Escobar, played by College senior Anthony Watkins, as she decides how to confront her torturer. Additionally, she must consider her husband’s insistence on hard evidence and the pleas of innocence from Roberto Miranda before she puts forward her accusation.

“This is not an easy play,” said Weisskoff, who became enraptured with Death and the Maiden after reading it in Professor of History Steve Volk’s Dirty Wars and Democracy class. “Because of its larger-than-life themes of violence and torture under a military government, it is unlikely that Oberlin students would be able to channel those experiences directly. We had to find other ways to access that — to learn how to conceptualize what it feels like to have a gun pointed at your head.” To access those emotions, the cast looked not only to the text but also to historical research and personal connections. They were required to learn some of the material from the “Dirty Wars and Democracy” class and studied literature on the medical association’s studies on torture. Professor Volk came in to speak with the cast; there was also a special Skype session with Joe McCright, an American who lived in Chile for nine months during the military dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet’s in 1980, to talk about his first-hand experience of living under the regime.

Embodying the characters is challenging. “Paulina, especially, is really hard,” Weisskoff said. “I needed someone who could play a kind of stubbornness and self-righteousness, but could also access vulnerability. She is a character who could be dictatorial and also be like a child having a tantrum. I knew Erin would be able to switch from stability and instability seamlessly.”

“This is definitely the hardest character I’ve been asked to play,” Amlicke said. “She is such a strong and intelligent woman, but yet she definitely has the qualities of what the male characters describe as ‘crazy.’”

Stage manager and College sophomore Kestrel Felt worked with the set manager, College senior Zach Weinberg, to create a stage that reflects the troubling text and highlights the ambiguity of truth. “The set is made to be abstract while holding down some reality,” Felt said. Clay tiling lies under the day bed, table, entryways and other objects, but the rest of the floor is black. “It relates to what is tangible and what is real. With dark spaces, it creates an illusion of space that can be disrupted — it gives kind of a feel[ing] of isolated spaces.”

“Though the play is realistic, there is enough ambiguous truth and psychological turmoil that creating an entirely realistic interior felt like an inappropriate representation of the text on stage,” Weinberg added. “The characters are marooned in a partially-defined space, and danger lurks out in the darkness.”

Death and the Maiden raises important questions while providing an intriguing plot. “[The play] offers an unusual view of justice; it is really exciting, and there is a lot of ambiguity — it’s not always clear which character is telling the truth,” Weisskoff said. “It provides a compelling discussion of the challenges of talking about violation and how to confront that and move on that I think many Oberlin students can relate to. It’s also important that others know the kind of institutional injustice that goes on in military governments.”

Amlicke agrees that the work has much value for the community. “It’s an important play for Oberlin,” she said. “I hope that it incites a lot of conversation among students about justice and recognition.”

Death and the Maiden will run April 10, 11, 12 and 13. Tickets are $3 in advance and $5 at the door, and can be purchased at Central Ticket Services.