Stacia Rice, Peter Christian Hansen and Craig Johnson are three of the good artists who worked together in the old small-theater clubhouse gang in the early 2000s. Each has achieved continuing success on larger Twin Cities stages, yet they enjoy working together under Rice's Torch nameplate or Hansen's Gremlin Theatre.
The three are performing Ariel Dorfman's "Death and the Maiden," which on opening night at the Minneapolis Theatre Garage had the contours of a solid production but hadn't quite jelled completely.
Dorfman's 1990 play (and later film) examines the political and psychic fallout in an unnamed country that has just emerged from dictatorship. Rice plays Paulina, whose tortured past under that regime has made her distrust authority and institutions.
So it works her last nerve as she paces around her airy beach home (set by Michael Hoover), waiting for her husband, Gerardo (Hansen), to return home. When she sees a strange car approach, she suspects the worst.
The car belongs to Roberto Miranda, a doctor and good Samaritan who helped Gerardo with a flat tire. When the two new friends talk in the home, Paulina listens nearby and is convinced that Roberto's voice is the voice of an oppressor who raped her while she was detained 15 years previous.
Should she carry out her own revenge — vigilante justice — or should she follow the counsel of her husband, who was just appointed to a presidential commission investigating the abuses of the old government?
Gerardo begs Paulina to climb back in from the ledge of her emotional vulnerability and rejoin civilization.
Rice and Johnson have been tormenting each other on stage for years. This time, Johnson is the unfortunate player. He spends most of the evening tied to a chair with panties stuffed in his mouth. Rice's Paulina is fanatical about making him confess that he violated her. When Roberto finally gets a chance to speak, the emotion washes out of him.
Hansen and Rice play characters with unfinished business, which has them wary of each other. Beyond that, Friday's performance had nervous blips that made David Mann's production seem less sure-footed — a bit tidy and cautious, without those delicious and reckless moments when someone goes off the chain. We've seen that from Rice over the years, where in an instant her actor's instinct catches you by surprise.
Mann's understanding of Dorfman's road map allows the themes and broader ideas to play out with strong clarity. The play grounds itself in ambiguity, which Mann wisely holds before us at all times. He and his actors animate points where the script runs in place, although the writing deficiencies are still evident.
The result is solid and worthwhile. The material isn't as sunny as when Rice and Hansen displayed effortless chemistry in 2012's "Sea Marks," nor does it quite find the frightening menace that allowed Johnson to terrorize Rice in 2005's "Wait Until Dark," which still stirs the memory. But what a great gift that these folks bring gripping drama to intimate venues, after all these years.