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Rhubarb Theater Company tackles Ariel Dorfman's tense revenge drama with generally strong results

Hostage Crisis

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It's not difficult to figure out why Death and the Maiden holds interest for theater artists: Simply put, it's a fabulous vehicle for actors to show their chops. Nashville has mounted the show previously — Razors Edge Productions in 2000 and People's Branch Theatre in 2008 — and now Rhubarb Theater takes its turn with Ariel Dorfman's famous 1992 play, which chronicles the encounter between a torture and rape victim and the man she believes to be her attacker.

The play's origins are rooted in the author's real-life experience in the early 1970s as cultural adviser to socialist Chilean President Salvador Allende, whose government was overthrown by military coup. On a strictly dramatic level, the three-character script offers intrigue, grim tension and the threat of violence, as the life of Paulina and Gerardo Escobar is turned upside-down when a stranger, Dr. Roberto Miranda, enters their home after assisting Gerardo with a flat tire.

Though blindfolded during her torture years before, Paulina still remembers her tormentor's voice and smell, and — with pistol in hand — she soon embarks on exacting her revenge on Miranda, though it's not entirely clear she has the right man. Meanwhile, Gerardo, a member of a governmental commission investigating atrocities under the previous regime — but unsure of his wife's mental state — agrees to serve as Miranda's defense attorney while Paulina conducts a kangaroo court to determine the man's innocence or guilt.

The brooding dialogue and the play's major themes of power, revenge and forgiveness are effectively enacted by Trish Crist, Phil Brady and Bakari King, who perform well under Heather Webber's direction. The air of menace is nicely reinforced by a thunderingly loud gunshot early in the play, and by the tense strings of Schubert's String Quartet in D Minor (D. 810) (subtitled "Death and the Maiden").

On balance, Rhubarb's production offers a strong, satisfying reading of the material and a fair amount of dramatic movement. Yet the limits of Paulina's crazed vengeance might have been pressed even further in Crist's portrayal. Given the stakes, her character would have benefited from even more intensity.

The company serves up one more performance, 7:30 p.m. Friday at Belmont University's Black Box Theatre as part of the First Night Honors festivities.

 

Ladies' night

Mary McCallum's SingleVille has been performed once monthly at The Next Level on Charlotte for many months now, and the show recently returned from a gig at the D.C. Black Theatre Festival, where it was singled out as best one-act play.

After catching the play last weekend, it's easy to see why SingleVille snagged the honor. McCallum and co-stars Tamiko Robinson and Molly Breen were clearly in sync, deftly handling the humorous and at times sardonic script, which might be described as a not-too-distant relative of Sex and the City.

Three ladies take their places downstage, opining on the savage state of modern relationships and the difficulties of connecting emotionally and otherwise with men. From there, they spin off into illustrative scenes in which males are depicted as generally mysterious (or often, simply obtuse). Women don't fare all that well either, with some sketches frankly admitting to the negative outcomes related to females' competitive natures and obsession with appearances.

But one thing that separates the characters and dialogue from Carrie Bradshaw & Co. is a lack of pretension. McCallum's ladies certainly have their frustrations — with advancing age or receding looks or their dwindling chances at anything that looks at least halfway like love. Yet their personalities and sisterhood seem genuine, so we not only can chuckle at their predicaments but also cheer them on as they strive for wholeness.

McCallum's revue-like material, directed by Barry Scott, offers roughly 70 minutes of well-paced mini-episodes that reflect modern romance (or the lack thereof), with pertinent references to social media and even a scene based on the shamelessly dour TV show Cheaters.

SingleVille's next performance is 8 p.m. Sept. 28 at the Darkhorse Theater as part of the Shades of Black Theatre Festival.

On the Level

Speaking of The Next Level, the venue will serve as host this weekend, Aug. 31-Sept. 2, for the second round of performances of Jim Reyland's original play Stand, the proceeds of which support Room in the Inn's fight against homelessness. (The play was the subject of the Scene's Aug. 23 cover story.) For details, visit writersstage.com.

Meanwhile, The Next Level's resident improv comedy troupe, Nashville Comedy Theater, has announced a name change. The group will heretofore be known as Nashville Improv Company.

Email arts@nashvillescene.com.

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