Chicago Theater Review: DEATH AND THE MAIDEN (Victory Gardens Theater)

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by Paul Kubicki on June 29, 2014

in Theater-Chicago

A MAIDENLY DEATH

Victory Gardens Theater’s Death and the Maiden is one of the most highly anticipated Chicago productions this year: Ariel Dorfman’s well-known play (made famous by Roman Polanski’s film) is rarely done, and stars Sandra Oh, who recently left her recurring role in the primetime drama Grey’s Anatomy. Oh plays Paulina Salas, a woman who seeks individual justice for the crimes committed against her during the Dirty War in Chile. She holds hostage a doctor (John Judd) whom, she suspects, raped her and aided in torturing her. Her husband Gerardo (Raúl Castillo), one of a panel of judges who must help stitch the country together, seeks to reconcile her suffering with the need to build a democratic and legal foundation for the country.

Sandra Oh and Raúl Castillo in DEATH AND THE MAIDEN at Victory Gardens Theatre in Chicago

Ms. Oh does not disappoint. She is the engine on which this play runs, handling the toggle between Paulina’s strength, uncertainty, and vulnerability with expertise and delicacy. Her physicality brings a visceral quality to the impassioned philosophical arguments that dominate the play. The somewhat manic script could make Paulina a bit alienating, but Oh brings a certain levelheadedness and wit that keeps us sympathetic to her cause. Oh’s ability to juggle all of these elements at once is a sight worth seeing. She is, however, the most remarkable element of a troubled production by far.

Sandra Oh and John Judd in DEATH AND THE MAIDEN at Victory Gardens Theatre in Chicago

On the night I attended, the performance was dotted by line flubs, somewhat clunky set transitions, and missed sound cues (which drowned out lines and ruined one of the most important moments of the play). These are hardly becoming of a theater of this stature. I can’t imagine that these will persist throughout the run—but they were not the only problematic elements.

Sandra Oh and Raúl Castillo in DEATH AND THE MAIDEN at Victory Gardens Theatre in Chicago.

Director Chay Yew seems fully committed to realism. It is an odd choice. Death and the Maiden is unapologetically melodramatic—there are even moments in the script where Dorfman mocks it as such. At some point, the play leaps the bounds of believability, but is so infused with pathos that the audience is willing to suspend disbelief. However, when downplayed as a realist drama, the believability gaps still exist, but there’s no sweeping emotion to distract us from them.

John Judd and Raúl Castillo in DEATH AND THE MAIDEN at Victory Gardens Theatre in Chicago

That seems to be the problem with Yew’s production. He restrains his cast and moderates their performances to such a degree that it is hard not to go back and question some of the fundamental premises of the play. Furthermore, the stakes feel remarkably low—Gerardo repeatedly notes that if word gets out about their hostage situation, the whole country could be set back in its efforts to reconcile. It never really feels that way.

Raúl Castillo, John Judd, and Sandra Oh in DEATH AND THE MAIDEN at Victory Gardens Theatre in Chicago

Raúl Castillo, of HBO’s series Looking, is most affected by this production’s timidity. His performance is a bit one-note, leaving us with very little, and sometimes drawing energy away from Sandra Oh’s vivacity. Theoretically, Gerardo has the most at stake—his reputation, his career, his convictions, his past sins, and the love of his life are all under fire. We do not see nearly enough of this struggle.

John Judd and Raúl Castillo in DEATH AND THE MAIDEN at Victory Gardens Theatre in Chicago.

Oh’s performance is excellent enough to carry this production a very long way—alone, it is enough to make this a recommended affair. But her burden is a heavy one, and she’s given little help. The result is a just-decent production, and that’s disappointing, because all of the ingredients were there for a great one.

Sandra Oh and Raúl Castillo star in DEATH AND THE MAIDEN at Victory Gardens Theatre in Chicago.

photos by Michael Courier

Death and the Maiden
Victory Gardens Theater
2433 N. Lincoln Avenue
scheduled to end on July 20, 2014
for tickets, call 773-871-3000 and www.victorygardens.org

for info on this and other Chicago Theater, visit www.TheatreinChicago.com

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