With their latest offering in an ambitiously political season, Commonwealth Shakespeare Company (CSC) tackles the modern classic Death and the Maiden by Chilean playwright Ariel Dorfman.
Set in an unnamed country still reeling from the aftermath of a totalitarian dictatorship, this riveting psychological thriller pits a former political prisoner, Paulina Salas, against the man she believes was her captor and abuser. Uncertain about his wife’s accusations, Paulina’s husband acts as the man’s makeshift lawyer, creating a suspenseful scenario where questions of veracity, justice, and vigilantism are raised.
I spoke to CSC Artistic Director Steven Maler and actress Flora Diaz (who plays Paulina) about working on this timely and powerful play and what they hope audiences might walk away with in its wake.
How did you go about selecting the shows you’re presenting this season?
STEVEN MALER: We’re living in a very challenging, complicated, and dangerous time right now. I’m personally concerned about the fabric of our country as a collective, understanding people with radically different points of view, and the stress tests our systems are undergoing at the moment. When you have a president who literally attacks the media—the fundamental right of the media—that’s a profoundly disturbing moment in history. The plays we’ve chosen to produce this season reflect on what can happen in these situations and will hopefully remind us all how the American experiment is a lot more fragile than we might think it is. I also want these plays to be cautionary tales for us all about what can very much happen to us as a country and what the ramifications of our actions—or, for that matter, inactions—can ultimately prove to be.
How does Death and the Maiden fit into such topicality?
MALER: The story it tells is happening in the newspapers everyday as of late. It’s a play about trauma perpetrated on women by men and what the damage done and recovery from that trauma might be. The action of the play takes place fifteen years after a military coup and the country is still trying to come to terms with the personal effects of a regime rooted in capture, torture, and rape. One of the characters, Paulina, suffered immensely under that dictatorship and her story makes us ask how one can possibly move on after enduring such fear, agony, and abuse. It’s a play that raises a lot of questions and doesn’t give many clear answers.
What does actress Flora Diaz bring to the role?
MALER: She’s extraordinary. She’s brave and vulnerable, fierce and fragile, and also manages to find the gallows humor in the part. Her availability to the material is so exciting; she really conveys the necessity and urgency of the piece.
Flora, what initially drew you to this project?
FLORA DIAZ: I was excited to work on this piece because it’s very familiar to me and my family. The same sort of regime that took power in the playwright’s Chile was also happening in my parents’ Uruguay. I grew up in the US hearing their story of fleeing one way of life for another and then never going back; I heard stories about their friends who were tortured, killed, or disappeared much like the people who populate the world of this play; and I witnessed my mother’s fear that it could all very easily happen again. Nobody in Uruguay thought what happened there could ever possibly happen: a sudden loss of trust in the institutions of your society where your sense of what is orderly and sensible is completely uprooted overnight. I look at what’s happening here in the United States and can see how that could very well happen to us, too. What I’ve learned from my parents’ stories is to always remember that your life can completely flip over at the drop of a hat and you should never take anything for granted.
Does your personal familiarity with the themes of the play help or hinder your process as an actor playing the role?
DIAZ: Having that personal well to pull from has just been really helpful in my investigation of the character. While Paulina’s behavior in the play could be viewed as kind of extreme—even borderline psychotic—I see her actions instead as those of an incredibly intelligent, strong, compassionate, and most of all rational person. Fifteen years ago, she was subjected to both rape and torture in a military prison and then, once that regime fell, asked to absurdly go back to leading a “normal life” attending concerts and cocktail parties with her husband and politely engage with many of the very people involved in and responsible for the atrocities committed against her. I think that, in and of itself, would be totally maddening. As such, she hasn’t been afforded the capacity to move on in any real sense of the term, so when presented with a fluke opportunity to take justice into her own hands, she simply has to pursue it.
What do you think could ultimately give Paulina the capacity to move on past her anguish?
DIAZ: What I think Paulina needs most are words: she needs to be able to tell her story and to hear a confession from her oppressor in order to salvage her sanity, heal, and be able to go on living. In a way it’s just a simple thing: let’s say the words of what happened. Let’s say the words and acknowledge it all. Let’s have a record of it. Let’s have documentation of what took place. That’s what I’ve seen with my mom in her life as someone just riddled with guilt at having survived what she survived. And the way she copes with it? She tells her stories. Actually, she’s been going on Facebook to tell her stories. She’s finally going public with everything that she escaped from after so many years of being too afraid to do so at risk of bringing harm to herself and her family. And as soon as she puts the stories out, so many people respond with their own stories about what happened to them and their loved ones during that time. And then there’s this beautiful outpouring of stories and an undeniable sense of communal relief from doing so.
Do you see yourself in Paulina?
DIAZ: I am a survivor of sexual assault in my own right. And the perpetrator of that crime against me was caught by the police, put on trial, and then sentenced to years in prison. To have been given a trial—to be allowed the chance to tell my story and gain public acknowledgment that a crime had been done against me—is what probably allowed me to move on and continue living my own life. At root, I think that solace was from getting the words out. There’s such healing power to be mined from shaping our experiences into a narrative that is spoken and witnessed and heard. For me, that’s what cures and also helps us retain a sense of ourselves in an increasingly uncertain world.
I love that because it so perfectly sums up our need for theater itself: the need for sharing our human experiences so that we can better appreciate our own and other’s humanity.
DIAZ: I think ultimately the play is trying to set up an environment where people can find it socially appropriate to share their own stories as a kind of therapy or exorcism. It’s a great play.
MALER: The play, like all great plays, doesn’t provide many answers. It asks a lot of questions, like all great art should. What the playwright does is resist easy answers and makes it more complicated for us as an audience. Every turn you take, it just becomes more complicated rather than easier. It’s a play you could see only once and then never forget.
What else might make this piece a worthwhile destination?
MALER: I hope everyone comes to see this to be disturbed—and also to laugh. It’s certainly not a dry, heavy night of politics. It’s a very gripping, human story. I would love for people to walk out full of questions and be able to ask some things about themselves. That would make me very happy.
Thank you both so much for your time. Any parting thoughts?
DIAZ: I get to be here to tell this story. I am so lucky to be able to tell it. It’s amazing. This story is amazing. But it’s tragically not unique.
DEATH AND THE MAIDEN. 1.30-2.11. COMMONWEALTH SHAKESPEARE COMPANY. SORENSON BLACK BOX THEATER, BABSON COLLEGE, WELLESLEY. COMMSHAKES.ORG.