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“Appearances can be deceiving:” An anonymous old saw, a wise mouthful.

A case in point: Chilean playwright Ariel Dorfman’s play, “Death and the Maiden,” a psychodrama, an intense and harrowing what’s real, what’s imaginary story based on actual events from the barbarous reign (1973-90) of Chile’s Augusto Pinochet.

Everything seems serene in the opening moments, Harold Pinter-esque ordinary. The scene is Paulina and Gerardo’s beach house on the South American coast. (Of course it’s Chile; Dorfman has said that “one’s writing is deeply political.”) A warm breeze wafts, a comfortable lanai beckons but Paulina, edgy as a cat, hears a car approach. She postpones making a pitcher of her fabled margaritas. She waits, pistol in hand. So much for soothing sounds of the surf. “Death and the Maiden” takes a very dark turn early.

Yet, it’s only Gerardo, late – flat tire, spare suspect, no jack – but he had been aided by a Good Samaritan, a Dr. Miranda. The two men had hit it off and Gerardo invited the doctor in for a drink. The helper deferred but around midnight he appears for a nightcap. Some banter, some laughs. A wary Paulina, out-of-view, listens intently. Then, incredulously, Miranda sounds exactly like her tormentor of more than a decade ago, an interrogator turned rapist, a Nietzsche-quoting fan of composer Franz Schubert, whose String Quartet No. 14 in D Minor, aka “Death and the Maiden,” played constantly while she was being tortured and sexually degraded. Paulina had been kidnapped, called a “political prisoner,” by soldiers and thugs employed by a brutal Pinochet. She’s been a mess all these years. And now, in her living room there’s this man, using certain pet phrases, the laugh, mannerisms, Nietzsche again. Snap.

Miranda stays the night. Paulina pounces, binds and gags the unsuspecting doctor and a trial begins, Paulina judge and jury, Miranda’s turn to be dehumanized. Gerardo, a lawyer and an ironic appointee to help investigate the atrocities of the previous government, is aghast, caught between loyalty to his wife and the legal system. Paulina is merciless. She wants a confession and repentance though she says several times that the crimes are “irreparable.” Miranda, for his part, insists he’s guiltless.

The play, the story, does end. Or does it? More twists and turns, guesses and mystery.

Subversive Theatre Collective and the fledgling Latino acting troupe, Raíces Theatre Company, have combined to present this fascinating “Death and the Maiden.” Raíces co-founders Victoria Perez and Rolondo Martin Gomez as Paulina and Miranda, and the estimable Victor Morales as Gerardo, are extraordinary, particularly the frenzied Perez, in this vexing work. All are fully caught up in matters of forgive-and-forget and what many have called “the morality of vengeance.” Emotions raw, moods on parade, they are full of foreboding as Schubert’s terror-filled music blares. He wrote this haunting piece shortly before he died in 1828 at age 31 of syphilis.

Direction by Subversive’s Rebecca Ward shows close attention to detail and she has a handle on the pace of developing menace, pervasive chill and impending doom. She gets every last drop of blood, sweat and tears from her cast – one that’s unforgettable – and lets the story tell itself. No tricks. Upfront. Close.

The production is superb technically: applause to John Shotwell, Tim Lane and Scotty Franklin, for sound, set and lighting designs. Moshe Shulman periodically adds some Schubert stringed snippets from a raised and ephemeral cage.

theater review

4 stars

What: “Death and the Maiden”

When: Through June 13

Where: Manny Fried Playhouse, 255 Great Arrow

Tickets: $20, $25

Info: 408-0499 or www.subversivetheatre.org