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Production

Death and the Maiden

Company

Escape Theatre Limited

Reviewer

Deanne Tan

Date

22/04/2006

Time

8.00pm

Place

DBS Arts Centre

Rating

***1/2

Grave Justice

Escape Theatre's production of Death and the Maiden packed a punch with its dark atmosphere of suspense tinged with a heavy undercurrent of violence. The gloomy set, surrealistic lighting and bass-heavy music provided the perfect backdrop for Ariel Dorfman's psychological thriller about a woman, Paulina Escobar (Karen Tan), who meets someone whom she thinks is the man who tortured her 15 years ago under the past military dictatorship of Chilean leader Augusto Pinochet.

The dark, claustrophobic set, which comprised the living and dining rooms of the Escobar beach house, destabilised the security of the domestic setting from the start. This atmosphere enhanced the sense of unease which accompanied the entry of the alleged torturer, doctor Roberto (Dan Jenkins) into the acquaintance of Paulina's husband Gerardo (Lim Yu-Beng) early on in the play. This unsettling atmosphere continued as Paulina's suspicions about Roberto grew and her unresolved issues with her past manifested themselves in her diabolical scheme to even the score with her abuser. That is, when Paulina decided to stage a private trial for Roberto and pass her own judgment on his deserved punishment.

Karen Tan was the core of the play with her chilling portrayal of an angry victim bent on vengeance. Much of the dramatic tension had to do with the unstable twists and turns of Paulina's mind, which Tan milked for all their worth. She adeptly alternated between the two extremes of cool rationality and crazed energy, believably rendering Paulina's transformation from victim to oppressor. The ominous change in Tan's character - marked by her late-night visit to Roberto's bedroom to knock him out and tie him to a chair in preparation for his trial - was given a nightmarish, surreal turn with the innovative use of music, light and shadow.

The production, however, sagged after this point. The tense atmosphere created by Tan diffused as she engaged in a long negotiation with her husband about the right way to handle the situation. Director Samantha Scott-Blackhall also carelessly allowed Lim to relax too quickly and too much after Tan - angry and armed - fired a shotgun to prove her determination to impose her own judgment upon Roberto. While clearly worried about the moral misguidedness of his wife, Lim did not seem bothered enough to want to physically wrest any form of control from her.

The lull in energy was also due to the poor chemistry between Tan and Lim, the latter of whom was too understated for the harrowing highs that Tan had established as the emotional pitch of Death. The morally charged themes of Dorfman's script (guilt, forgiveness and justice in the context of a flawed political system) suffered as a result. In Lim's hands, Gerardo's symbolic role as moral arbiter fell short of the intensity that Tan poured into Paulina's role of the victim/oppressor.

With only a weak counterpoint to balance Paulina's extremes, Tan's character suffered from an ensuing woodenness. Tan's Paulina, also prone to occasional awkward bursts of black humour which failed to work, became a monstrous villain, an unsympathetic character. And although Jenkins skilfully maneuvered a perfectly ambivalent Roberto - leaving the audience guessing as to his true intentions - his spirited performance was limited to simply doing that. Death thus scored its points only as a psychological guessing game. As a piece of theatre, it had a long way more to go to make a lasting impact on its audiences.


"The dark, claustrophobic set, which comprised the living and dining rooms of the Escobar beach house, destabilised the security of the domestic setting from the start"

Credits

Cast: Karen Tan, Lim Yu-Beng and Dan Jenkins

Producer: Mark Waite

Director: Samantha Scott-Blackhall

Set: Nicholas Li Hao Min

Lighting: Suven Chan

Sound: Darren Ng

Costume: Anthony Tan

Hair: Ashley Lim

Stage Management: Ting Hock Hoe

Asst Stage Management: Toh Lin

Sound Operator: David Lim

More Reviews of Productions by Escape Theatre Limited

More Reviews by Deanne Tan

Ratings out of 5, based on Practitioner's Vision / Reviewer's Response: ***** = Transcendent / Rapturous;
**** = Crystal / Appreciative; *** = Transmitted / Thoughtful; ** = Vague / Unsatisfied; * = Uncommunicated / Mystified.