By  Ariel Dorfman
Directed and Designed by Todd Olson
Todd's Hammer
At the BCA's Black Box Theatre, Boston --- 9/98 (closed)

 Reviewed by G.L. Horton

Todd Olson's new company, Todd's Hammer, is the second ambitious young professional theatre making its debut in Boston this year. Olson is a recent graduate of the ART's Institute for Advanced Theatre Training at Harvard, and his core troupe is composed of people he worked with while he was studying there.  As Artistic Director, Olson has announced that his Hammer's mission is to "produce human stories from world theatre that move me most" and the choice of Ariel Dorfman's 1991 "Death And The Maiden" will serve as a good  introduction: the play is well known but not over produced, and undeniably difficult and serious.  There was an award winning  film made from Dorfman's script, and the stage play has also has been seen by many Boston area theatergoers, either in the New York version or on the New Rep's stage in Newton some seasons back.  Olson's youthful company is confident enough of its powers to be inviting comparison. Alas, it's not a comparison I'm able to make-- the BCA production is my first encounter with Dorfman's play.

In addition to directing  "Death And The Maiden",  Olson designed it as well.  His set is one more of the BCA's wonders-- for show after show, without the facilities of a scene shop or access to the performance space before tech week, shoestring companies somehow manage to contrive beautiful, functional, expressive sets.  Olson has built an entire vacation cottage, with windows but no walls; a living-dining area and a raised bedroom with French doors opening out onto the beach and a wooden walkway running around the outside of the cottage where the audience is seated, hugging all four sides of the Black Box space.  Electric light, candles, a flashlight, the moon on the water, a car's headlights-- exquisite lighting effects provide atmosphere and heighten tension, while the sound of waves on the beach underscores the isolation and remoteness of the resort area, the sense of being cut off from interaction the rest of humanity.

Olson's staging seems super-intelligent to me: the director has arranged scenes and events so that there is some visual overlap, and this acts as a reminder of the perspective of whichever character is not in the room where the main action occurs.  All three cast members are intense and committed, and shape their performances towards the climax.   I did feel some lack of weight in the male characters because of the youth of the performers.  It seemed as if the on stage struggle between the three of them in the present crisis was a life-defining event, rather than the life-altering one it would be for two such successful and important men.  Youth was less of a handicap for actress Dina Comolli, because Paulina is a character whose growth to maturity has been short circuited by the terrible things that happened to her, and by the social and personal silence in which she has been forced to live since they happened.  All Comolli's responses were as fresh as if Paulina's injuries occurred the day before yesterday, rather than more than a decade in the past.

 I knew two things about "Death And The Maiden" before seeing it. First, that it was written by a Chilean exile who feared becoming one of the "disappeared" himself if he tried to live and work under the Pinochet dictatorship.  Second, that the "Death And The Maiden" plot concerns an upper middle class wife who fortuitously becomes the kidnapper of the man who presided over her torture and rape when she was a student dissident working for the overthrow of the regime. This plot is very like an exercise assigned in Playwriting 101, where the writer is instructed to imagine a scene wherein his worst enemy-- someone he hates, fears, and condemns--  is imprisoned and at his mercy.  I really disliked that writing exercise.  It exposed the limits of my imagination, and the extent of my squeamishness.   It exposes some pretty nasty stuff lurking in the minds of other writers, too.  From "The Tempest" to "Misery", variations on the vengeance plot have been among my least favorite experiences in the theatre, quite apart from the talent involved in exploring the premise.

The compensation for entering the writer's torture chamber-- what Dorfman calls "the quick center of suffering where ethical choices determine the immediate shape of things to come"-- is that one can learn lessons there that in the real world come at a terrible price. What is there to be learned from the portrait of a civilized country that allowed itself to be ruled by a regime that regarded kidnapping and torture and murder as legitimate tools of social control? What sort of people did the dirty work? What sort of people had the courage or foolishness to oppose it? How can the torturers and their victims ever become a single society, with the mutual respect and shared values that make democratic negotiation possible?

Ray Schmoll plays Gerardo Escobar, a fortyish lawyer nominated by the newly installed democratic government to head a committee  investigating  "The Disappeared" and the mostly military or police agents who kidnapped, tortured and murdered them.    The investigation is not expected to hold individuals criminally accountable, but merely to shed light on the process by which ordinary respectable citizens became either victims or executioners, and to suggest safeguards to prevent future reigns of terror. Dina Comolli is the lawyer's wife, Paulina, who was a medical student when Gerardo, then her  lover, recruited her to work for the underground opposition.  Paulina was snatched off the street by a terror squad on her way to class in broad  daylight, and her refusal to name Gerardo as her cell's leader in spite of months of torture means that Gerardo owes her his life: a debt he began to pay after Paulina got out of  prison by marrying her and nursing her back to some semblance of physical and mental health.  At the opening of the play Paulina is waiting for her overdue husband to arrive and eat the special celebratory dinner she has prepared, but she isn't just impatient -- she is in a kind of panic, and each of the objects she touches during her wordless scene at the top of the play expresses the parameters of her panic. When Paulina hears the sound of a strange car in the drive, she gets out a gun and keeps it aimed at the front door until she hears her husband's voice. Gerardo has suffered a flat tire and without a spare would have been stranded except for a Good Samaritan, one Dr. Roberto Miranda (Matt Chiorina) who gave him a lift home.   By the next scene Paulina has heard the Good Samaritan's voice and is convinced that Miranda is the sadistic doctor who supervised her torture, the doctor who played a tape of Schubert's "Death And The Maiden" while he raped her.  Paulina knocks Roberto unconscious and insists that her husband help her force the doctor to confess what he did to her, and that Gerardo then act as judge and sentence the torturer/rapist to some fitting punishment.

For a while the more philosophical questions of guilt and reparation are pushed to the background by matters of evidence that generate suspense. Is Miranda really the one?  The doctor insists that he is a liberal and that he has always opposed the regime himself.  Besides,  he wasn't even in the country at the time Paulina disappeared. Her husband simply can't  believe that his friendly benefactor, with whom he was drinking and male bonding just a few hours ago, is a monster.  Who could blame poor Paulina if her horrible experience left her subject to delusions?

Olson and his cast have filled in plenty of psychological detail, and by playing Dorfman's three acts straight through without intermission  kept the audience busy figuring out the layers of lies and manipulation in the married couple's relationship.  The tangle is dense, both because of the sexual nature of the injury and because of the gender roles that circumscribe the characters.  Paulina says she only joined the underground for love of Gerardo, and it was her love for him that kept her suffering and silent.  Gerardo is able to take a long view of how redress for an individual victim's suffering must yield to the greater good of a lawful civil society-- until Roberto reminds him of how a "real man" would react:  Paulina's rape amounts to her husband's emasculation, an injury to honor that can only be wiped out by the rapist's death.  Paulina herself has never forgiven Gerardo for becoming involved with another woman during the month when he thought Paulina dead, and her jealous rage seems connected to her silence about the sexual abuse she suffered in prison.  Paulina says early on that justice demands that the rapist Roberto be raped. Since she hasn't the equipment to rape him herself  her husband should do it for her.  But if her husband did that, then Paulina's rape of Roberto by Gerardo's proxy would commit her to making love with a rapist for the rest of her life.

There is a kind of madness at work as Paulina insists that her revenge is private and has nothing to do with the public matters of justice that will be her husband's job on the Commission.   Gerardo and Roberto empathize as reasonable men forced to deal with a crazy woman, giving in to her irrational demands by making up some story to satisfy her, by telling her what she wants to hear.  How far this is pretense on either man's part is left ambiguous.  But the doctor's confession also contains a personal acknowledgment of the addictive pull of sexual dominance, and a capacity for taking pleasure in inflicting pain that comes across not as a flaw in some particular humans, but as part of human nature itself.  The question then is not "what kind of monster takes part in torture?" but "how can we monitor ourselves and our neighbors to prevent the monster that is within most of us from gaining the power to do the evil that comes naturally?"  Even enforcing lip service to liberty and fraternity is a giant step.

The last scene, at a concert months or years later,  implies that on some level lip service has worked out.  Gerardo's Commission has issued a report.  Some of the silenced have been given a hearing, and they can be taken as metaphorical representatives of all those who will never be heard-- just as the theatre audience can be taken as representatives of all those who refused to look or listen or intervene while the crimes were being carried out.  Healing has begun. Paulina sits beside her husband, once again able to listen to a performance of Schubert's "Death And The Maiden".   And Roberto is at the concert too, or appears to be, absorbed in the exquisite pleasure of.... the music?