Stakes too Low [by Matt Baker]
Ariel Dorfman is an intellectual. An academic, essayist, novelist, and playwright, his literary prolificacy is comparable only by the activism for human rights which fuels it. Newmarket Stage Company Artistic Director, John Callen, clearly recognises both these aspects, and presenting this production with not only the Newmarket Business Association, but, more importantly, Amnesty International, is both an artistically astute and commercially conscious decision. Comprehension and cause, however, is not enough for the demand of theatre, so while the relevance of the play when considering the atrocities currently playing out across the globe is evident as an intellectual afterthought, the production itself does not resonate the same way Callen’s voice does on the Opera Factory stage during opening night speeches.
The play is a thriller, but the stakes in this production are simply not high enough. Life and death hang in the balance, and yet at no point was there enough tension on the stage to facilitate my suspension of disbelief as an audience member. Callen mentions the importance of casting, and while George Henare is unanimously and unreservedly apt casting for Doctor Roberto Marinda, accused perpetrator and now hostage, the same cannot be said about Tatiana Hotere and Edwin Wright, the wife and husband captors. Death and the Maiden relies entirely on its female lead, so the one-noted performance Hotere presents leaves little room for either genuine drama or empathy. She never engages with her fellow cast members unless choosing to play the actor-defensive adjectives of sarcasm or flippancy, which are exactly the attributes her husband Gerardo accuses her of and she claims she is not.
This egocentricity of both actor and character results in Wright having to work in opposition to, instead of with, Hotere. To his credit, Wright avoids pushing to make up for the lack of dynamism, but this consequently prevents him from having the “strength to win an argument” and being able to extend his performance to the full extremity the role has to offer. Compared to Hotere’s natural Brazilian accent, Wright speaks in a Kiwi dialect, causing concern to its purpose in a Chilean-based play. Henare’s refined RP fits the educated nature of his role, and he brilliantly balances his performance between the hidden excitement and mask of virtue, never once validating the audience’s perception of him either way; raising questions, not giving answers.
While the Opera Factory stage provides affluent space for Rick Cave’s set design, the stark black walls don’t invoke the sense of a coast-side Chilean villa, and the cast’s shoes could benefit from felting to prevent any acoustic clomping. Phillip Dexter’s lighting design provides both focus and atmosphere where necessary, and is opportunely operated by Jamie Blackburn, although the conventional transitions needed some (any) sound design to accompany them.
Dorfman’s script requires action within the dialogue, as much of the drama exists between what is being said, with very little being done. The premise of the play is merely a catalyst, and the majority of the time is spent using Paulina (Hotere) as a mouthpiece for Dorfman’s testimonial literature. Without a strong lead to convey the emotionality abound within the conviction of these ideas, the solidarity of justice becomes solitary as opposed to universal. While NSC and Callen have presented the unity of the plot of the play, they have not found the coalescence of the climate. The failure to amalgamate the play’s political power with an artistic essentiality results in a production that, while dignified, leaves Dorfman’s script as an abstract concept.
Death and the Maiden is presented by Newmarket Stage Company and plays at the Opera Factory until June 13. For details see iTicket.