Review By Regan Baker
There is no better cure for a particularly tough week than a spot of theatre. Whether that be in the form of a musical, stand-up comedy, physical theatre, or a play, the live arts bring joy and renewed energy to the soul and makes all other problems wash away. With a small burst of energy and renewed excitement for theatre (and wine), I pulled on my shoes and ventured the 150m from my Bowen Hills apartment to the quaint Ad Astra Theatre, tucked away in the backstreets of Fortitude Valley.
Death and the Maiden was not what I was expecting it to be; though I don’t really know what I was expecting, but it left me feeling many things and overall, I was pleasantly surprised. Ariel Dorfman’s story tells of Paulina, an emotionally unstable woman who believes that the good samaritan her husband brings home may not be all he claims to be. While the stranger sleeps in the night, Paulina knocks him unconscious, ties him up and accuses him in front of her husband of being the doctor who, under a fascist dictatorship, raped and tortured her and dozens of other women years ago.
Being that Ad Astra is quite a small theatre you are immersed deeply in the home of the Escabar family as the division between audience and actor is close to non-existent. The set was that of a living room, kitchen and porch and was simple in its’ construction, but it did exactly what it needed to in setting the scene. Working with such a small space can be challenging as a director, but Jacqueline Kerr took to the task with ease and the movement of the actors around the stage appeared natural and pointed. What I loved most from Kerr was the decision to hold actors on stage even when they weren’t a part of the main scene, as some of the best performances emerged in these moments of background acting. The only downside of this was that some of the scene changes were a little slow and it did make things feel a little bit awkward in the audience. It is certainly a fine balancing act because I needed those moments of background acting (they were that good), but I also wanted the scene changes to be a little quicker.
The shining light of Death and the Maiden was Sandra Harman as Paulina Salas. Harman completely embraced the role of the mentally and emotionally unstable Paulina and delivered a performance that will stick with me. Everything from her movement around the stage, to the slight twitch in her hand as she spoke, and her pacing back and forth resonated as someone who had been through significant trauma. It wasn’t just her front of stage acting that did it for me though, it was also those moments of background acting mentioned above that truly elevated her as a highly talented artist. Her nervous movements, the shake in her hands, her facial expressions – the character was riddled with anxiety and evidence of past trauma and Harman delivered all of these in one of the most believable performances I have ever seen.
Tom Coyle did a standout job in most areas of his role as Doctor Roberto Miranda. He presented as a likeable character throughout and one that you would not have suspected of such horrific accusations. The horror on his face and his reactions to the accusations and his kidnapping were genuine. He was crafty in his manipulation of Gerardo and legitimately looked and acted terrified of Paulina and the things she came at him with. Even though he was tied up for most of the play, his acting from this position stood out and he performed well in restricted conditions. I did, however, struggle with his put-on accent. I’m probably being nit-picky, and the vast majority may disagree with me here, but I struggled to connect with his character as completely as I did with Harman’s because I couldn’t get past the barrier of, what I think, was an unnecessary voice.
The casting choice of Gary Farmer-Trickett as Gerardo Escabar is an interesting one, however. As a standalone performance he shifted between soft and caring partner and defensive alpha-male well, and for the most part made me believe his character. I really enjoyed him as a performer and there was significant evidence of him being a highly talented actor, but the role of Gerardo was not a good fit. In the original text the character is written for that of a forty to forty-five-year-old male who has been married to Paulina for some fifteen years. Farmer-Trickett doesn’t look a day over thirty and the age gap between himself and Harman made their relationship a little difficult to believe. I don’t hold any of this against him and would love to see more work of his in the future as I strongly believe he is a talented actor; it was just hard for him to shine in a role that didn’t suit.
Death and the Maiden was an interesting performance. I loved the story and I loved Harman’s delivery of Paulina Salas, but there were a few areas, as mentioned above, that could have been improved to make me fall in love with it in its’ entirety. I still recommend seeing it though, especially if you have never heard the story before as it is quite captivating and will leave you wondering what the truth may be.