Ann Cox

Leighton Buzzard Observer

Never let it be said that Leighton Buzzard Drama Group isn’t ambitious.

The company’s latest production, Ariel Dorfman’s Death And The Maiden, which opened last night at the town’s Lake Street theatre doesn’t make for easy viewing but it’s a testament to the skill of its three stars that the audience stayed with them throughout.

There’s little in the way of action, absolutely no jollity or lightness, but what you have, over two hours, is an intense and powerful story about politics, revenge and morality that poses as many questions as it answers.

The title refers to a piece by Schubert. It was a favourite of a sadistic doctor who played it while he raped and tortured a girl who had been arrested as an opponent to the regime ruling Chile.

Fast forward 15 years and the girl is now married but profoundly mentally and physically scarred by her earlier ordeal.

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One night her partner’s car breaks down and she is rescued by a passing stranger. When he later calls on the couple the woman recognises his voice and decides to exact a terrible revenge on him.

But isn’t she doing exactly what he did to her? And what if she’s wrong? Her hostage vehemently denies any wrongdoing and claims she has lost her mind. Caught in the crossfire is the woman’s partner, a human rights lawyer. Is the emotionally scarred Paulina Salas right in her assumptions or has the past warped her fragile mind?

Director Ann Kempster has done a great job with a very difficult piece that was made harder by a struggle with casting. In this production Paulina’s partner is a woman, Renata Escobar, even though lesbian marriage would be illegal in today’s Chile and certainly not admitted to back in the 1970s when this story was set.

But the company overcome the sexuality hiccup with ease with some superbly passionate performances by all three actors – Emma Stone as Paulina, Jo Taylor playing her “husband” Renata and Mark Croft, looking absolutely petrified throughout, as Dr Roberto Miranda.

Each part brings with it its own set of problems. Poor Mark spends most of the performance bound to a chair which somewhat limits his acting abilities . In the odd moments that he is free (I don’t think we really need the sound effects of him going to the toilet) his character quivers uncontrollably in abject terror as he struggles to find a way out of his predicament.

Emma is quite menacing as the deranged Paulina. She plays the victim to perfection (although perhaps a little too much skulking in the darkened stage) yet is absolutely riveting as a kidnapper, torturer and possibly killer.

Dorfman’s character of Gerardo Escobar, now Renata, represents the toothless face of a new government and Jo spends a lot of time spouting liberal propaganda or in panic mode, which she does very well, trying to diffuse the situation. While Paulina seems icily calm, even when brandishing a gun, her spouse is left to carry the emotional fallout and come up with an argument that will save a man’s life.

The only time the drama falls down is in its finale which is a bit of a mess. It’s not necessarily Kempster’s fault because the original play’s ending is pretty sloppy, leaving it up to the audience to make some sense of the final scene. But I think she is being a bit over-ambitious with the whole mirrors thing which left a few in the first night crowd scratching their heads.

Still, full marks to Leighton Buzzard Drama Group for pushing the am-dram boundaries still further. This was so beautifully acted that it could well have been a professional production.

Enid Cooper

NODA REVIEW

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Although no country is named in this play, Death and the Maiden relates to the time of post dictatorship Chile. It concerns one of the victims of Pinochet’s regime. It asks fundamental questions about the nature of justice.
The setting was simple but this was enhanced by the use of atmospheric lighting which added much to the mood of the piece.

The opening was tense and Ann was able to maintain that tension throughout the play. This was not a straightforward task however, but the varying moods of the play and the characters, and the twists in the plot, had been carefully choreographed to ensure that the audience was kept in suspense. Ann was fortunate to be able to cast three talented actors who were thoroughly believable.

Emma Stone played the deeply troubled Paulina, a victim of torture and rape under an unnamed previous ruthless dictatorship. Her very first non speaking appearance demonstrated her fragile personality. Her insecurity was very evident at the beginning of the play. However when she recognises the voice of her torturer Roberto, her character changes. She is intent on revenge and acts to achieve this. She uses a gun she has hidden to take control, and begins to dominate the action, her insecurity disappears and we witness an avenging fury insisting that Roberto be held to account. The development of this character was very well acted and maintained building up to dramatic climaxes.

Jo Taylor played Paulina’s partner Renata. At first she is the dominant partner. She believes that the new government is doing it’s best to right the wrongs of the previous dictatorship. This was another finely judged performance as her views are modified and complicated.

Roberto played by Mark Croft is the catalyst for these events. He did this well and was very convincing as the plausible person who protests his innocence.

These were three first rate utterly believable performances. Using a variety of pace, tone and delivery, the moods and arguments had been carefully plotted so that the sympathy of the audience continually shifted.

These subtle and ingenious performances made for an uneasy and tense atmosphere – is Paulina mad, is Roberto innocent or guilty. But more than that the performance raised many moral questions about vengeance and how society can escape from a history of violence.

The ending is an expressionistic device, mirrors are turned on the audience. We see Paulina and Renata at the concert. Roberto is sitting at a distance. Is he an hallucination, what has happened?

The play has no resolution. but gives us much to reflect on.

This was a thought provoking play, directed assiduously and well performed by a talented trio of actors.