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victory gardens death and the maidenWith the number of nationally-anticipated/written-up/reviewed theater productions this summer in Chicago, you’d expect there to be more people coming into town to see a show than to go eat a turkey leg at the Taste of Chicago. Broadway in Chicago has the world premiere of Sting’s first foray into musical theater, The Last Ship, set to transfer to New York this fall. Over at Steppenwolf,  Michael  Cera, a major name for the millennial audiences that arts organizations covet, is headlining another production scheduled for a Broadway run in the fall, Kenneth Lonergan’s This is Our Youth. At the Goodman, a major revival of Brigadoon, with a revised book and the active collaboration of Alan Jay Lerner’s daughter Lisa, is running.  And at Victory Gardens Theater, a revival of Ariel Dorfman’s Death and the Maiden stars Sandra Oh in her first project after her celebrated though much-lamented departure from the TV hit Grey’s Anatomy. As an Asian theatergoer this production is probably the most notable for me since it gives me an opportunity to see in live performance the most successful Asian actor of my generation.  And Oh, riveting and emotionally committed, doesn’t disappoint, powerfully anchoring a play that has so many internal logic questions that the audience’s ability to suspend disbelief, so integral in good theater, is continuously challenged throughout the ninety minute running time.

Oh plays Paulina, a seemingly well-off woman in an unnamed country that had just experienced the end of a brutal, authoritarian regime.  She seems to be initially nervous and enveloped with melancholy. One night her government official husband Gerardo, played by my dream husband Raul Castillo, who made many a gay man’s heart (and other body parts) flutter in HBO’s Looking, invites into their seaside home a doctor Roberto, played by Chicago acting stalwart John Judd. Soon enough, Paulina starts to believe that Roberto had been her cruel yet unseen jailer and torturer in the past and takes justice literally into her own hands (with the help of a gun, ropes, and underwear doubling as a gag).  Most of Death and the Maiden is Paulina, with the reluctant help of Gerardo, trying to extract a confession from Roberto regarding the heinous acts he committed against her and others.  It is theatrical and dramatic, sure. And Dorfman definitely writes dialogue and scenes that are explosive, vividly descriptive, and intense. But the theatricality and drama mask the basic flaw of the writing: how could this situation have ever happened in the first place? First, why would Gerardo ask Roberto to stay the night at their home if he hardly knows him? And why would Roberto accept? In a country still reeling from the effects of a dictatorial regime with its secret police and informants’ network, you’d expect people to be more aloof and wary and not easily inviting strangers to their home for a sleepover.  And if Gerardo is such a man of strength, courage, and impeccable moral convictions (wouldn’t he be if he was appointed to lead the investigation and prosecution of the dictatorship’s political crimes?) why is he not able to do anything to dissuade his wife from doing things that are obviously illegal? Why is he going along with her scheme?  And if Paulina is so shattered by her experience (in the first scene she hides behind a curtain when an unknown car pulls up to their driveway) how does she so quickly transform into a hard-charging, unwavering Angel of Vengeance, so totally convinced in Roberto’s guilt despite evidence that can be best described only as circumstantial?

It is the acting that makes up for the disappointingly weak, contrived playwriting and makes Death and the Maiden watchable.  Oh successfully portrays Paulina’s strength and determination and at the same time layers them with deep-seated sadness. I especially love the scene when she confronts Gerardo with the fact that she never gave him up even under extreme torture; Oh plays the scene with impressive calibration – accusatory yet also with a deep self-awareness that this was what you did for the person you loved the most.  Castillo is well-matched with Oh to a certain extent; again, it may be as much a problem with the writing as with the acting choices (a little too muted, a little too easy to capitulate) that the strength and moral backbone of Gerardo, supposedly a resistance fighter, isn’t credibly and clearly delineated.  Judd is always an interesting presence and one of my favorite Chicago theater actors, but again the writing leaves him literally stranded sitting tied up in chair for most of the play and he does the most that he can do with that circumstance.  I also didn’t sense any streak of malevolence in Judd’s portrayal of Roberto (he does seem like a genial, neutered, affluent man with no political convictions) that could have made Paulina come off less as a paranoid, maybe-crazy person, and as a victim who credibly recognized her oppressor.

Artistic Director Chay Yew’s direction keeps the scenes tight and in motion which heightens the dramatic momentum and helps you overlooks the holes in the playwriting.  William Boles perplexing rotating house, impressively constructed and detailed, literally keeps the play in motion as well. I’m not sure though why the rotating set could not have been supplanted by a split-level set or some other design decision that is less conspicuous and distracting.  Maybe if Dorfman’s play is better written, there would not have been a need for a showy set piece like this.

Death and the Maiden is at Victory Gardens Theater, 2433 N. Lincoln Ave., until July 20.

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