OFFBEAT: Difficult 'Death and the Maiden' at VG lacks depth and desperation

Phil Potempa's daily entertainment news column
2014-06-26T00:00:00Z OFFBEAT: Difficult 'Death and the Maiden' at VG lacks depth and desperationBy Philip Potempa, (219) 852-4327

Just a few years after the 1990 play by Chilean playwright Ariel Dorfman called "Death and the Maiden" had the world premiere at the Royal Court Theatre in London in July 1991, I remember catching a local production.

That was 20 years ago, and I still recall what a challenge this stage story is to share with a captive audience.

I did not see the 1994 film version directed by Roman Polanski and starring Sigourney Weaver, Ben Kingsley and Stuart Wilson.

On Tuesday, I caught a performance of the new production of "Death and the Maiden," at Victory Gardens Theater in Chicago, which has already added an additional week of performances to the run now through July 20.

Directed by artistic director Chay Yew, the three-member cast consists of Raúl Castillo and John Judd with film, television and stage actress Sandra Oh.

This is the first I've thought about this stage work in many years. And more than two decades later, it is still a very difficult tale to convey.

Running just 90 minutes without an intermission, the marketing materials describe the work as: "A political thriller is set in a rocky new democracy where Gerardo has just been chosen to head the commission that will investigate the crimes of the old regime when his car breaks down and he is picked up by a kind doctor. Gerardo’s wife, Paulina, thinks she recognizes the doctor as the man who tormented her as she lay blindfolded in a military detention center years before. 'Death and the Maiden' is a riveting play about revenge, trauma and forgiveness." Yes...all of this is a lot to manage in an hour and a half as a convincing and edge-of-the-seat yarn intended to keep audiences guessing and debating truth from fiction right until the final minutes.

Victory Gardens, the creative team and cast are commended for tackling a play not produced so very often.

Of this cast of three, actor Castillo, who plays the role of husband Gerardo is the least convincing. Some of his lines sound recited, and lack the emotion, pain and confusion needed to propel so many other factors for what unfolds. I also never quite believed the range of torment, fear and anger so necessary from the character of the doctor, as played by Judd, who is such a fine actor. But again, to be in these roles night after night and manage such inner conflict and pain is something unimaginable for so many talented stage artists. But, it is possible. As the wife, Oh is by far the most comfortable handling what are intended to be very uncomfortable scenes and so many moments of mental anguish. But, without the full force of all three cast members performing at their needed breaking points, so much of what results just doesn't feel all so dire and desperate.

It also doesn't help that sadly, in today's society, we live in such a desensitized world where dialogue about rape, torture, revenge, murder and torment bring inappropriate moments of laughter from the audience at times as lines are delivered. Perhaps, at my performance, it was just laughter that emerged as a way to mask what was felt to be uncomfortable exchanges between the performers.

Performances are 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, as well as 4 p.m. Saturday shows and 3 p.m. Sunday shows. There will be a 2 p.m. matinee on Wednesday, July 2. There will not be a public performance on July 4, 2014. Tickets begin at $20. Performances are at the Victory Gardens located in the old Biograph Theater, 2433 N. Lincoln Ave., in the heart of Chicago's Lincoln Park neighborhood. FYI: (773) 871-3000 or

The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer. He can be reached at or (219) 852-4327.

Copyright 2014 All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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