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Taking a Chance at Edinburgh Fest : Theater: Playwright Ariel Dorfman follows up his popular 'Death and the Maiden' with the more experimental 'Reader.'

August 26, 1995|DAVID GRITTEN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

EDINBURGH, Scotland — Five years ago, Ariel Dorfman was simply a provocative Chile-born writer, highly regarded in literary circles yet virtually unknown outside them. What a difference a play makes.

His "Death and the Maiden," an examination of the legacy of torture and repression in 1970s Chile, was first performed in London in 1990 and seen at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles in 1994. It has been among the most widely produced new dramas of our time and has been translated into 30 languages and performed in 57 countries, with 63 separate productions in Germany alone.

Roman Polanski made a film of it, starring Sigourney Weaver and Ben Kingsley, and despite mixed reviews for that, the playwright faced huge expectations. What would Dorfman do next? "The obvious thing," he says, "would have been to write another play in a similar vein and open it in New York or London."

Instead, he has been spending the last two months here, keeping a low profile and working on "Reader," a play far more experimental in style, in which characters' identities are blurred and time scales shift. Its world premiere at the Traverse Theater has been one of the highlights of this year's Edinburgh Festival. It has virtually sold out every night and has received mixed but respectful reviews.

Dorfman visited Edinburgh last year and struck up a friendship with Ian Brown, artistic director at the Traverse. "I liked his productions," Dorfman says. "I also wanted to make a statement by opening the play in Edinburgh--that I don't want to get stuck in a pigeonhole, that I'm not someone who doesn't take chances or work on the borders.

"And it seemed to me that the bigger the theater in which we opened 'Reader,' the more money that went into the production, the less chance there would be for experimentation."

He says all this over lunch at the theater's cafe, where he talks expansively and volubly. Dorfman, 53, is enthusiastic, riveting company, and much of his conversation revolves around his status as an exile. He was driven from his homeland by a CIA-backed coup that removed the government of the democratic socialist President Salvadore Allende in 1973, and installed the dictator Gen. Augusto Pinochet.

Dorfman was allowed to return to Chile a decade later, but because of his outspoken leftist views he was arrested and deported in 1987. Since democracy returned to Chile in 1990, Dorfman has split his time between there and North Carolina, where he lectures at Duke University.

The experimentation of "Reader" may mark a stylistic shift from the linear narrative of "Death and the Maiden," but the preoccupations of both plays have resonance in Dorfman's life. "Reader" is about a state-appointed censor who diligently pores over plays and novels submitted to him, editing, softening ideas and altering emphases. He is jolted when he reads a novel that describes his past life with uncanny accuracy, outlining horrors in his past he has guiltily chosen to forget. This novel starts to take over his life and to determine his actions; onstage we see the novel being enacted as well as the censor's response to it.

This is all specific to the Chilean experience, but universal too. "The play says that not all censorship comes from the state, but also from within individuals," he explains. "It says that to suppress other people, you have to suppress a part of yourself. I am obsessed with people's need to tell their own stories."

As he might be. Dorfman has many friends who were murdered or who simply disappeared after Pinochet came to power; he is aware that in Chile there are still many people who quite literally know where the bodies are buried but remain silent.

Because of this and because of his radical views, one might expect his work to be angrier, more didactic; instead he revels in gray areas, ambiguities and unresolved issues.

"The most extraordinary thing a playwright can do is to leave an audience asking questions," he says. "I like things that aren't black and white. In 'Death and the Maiden,' people told me the heroine Paulina was a pain in the ass. But that was almost the point. You didn't have to like her, it wasn't relevant."

Since he became famous five years ago, Dorfman has plenty of time to ponder on the pitfalls of success. "One danger is that people will say, 'Oh, Dorfman writes plays like "Death and the Maiden." ' So I've tried to steer clear of that.

"The other danger is that I'm very ambitious," he admits with a disarming smile. "I've always wanted to be loved as a playwright. I'm sure this has a lot to do with being an exile and having been separated from anything with meaning in my life.

"If my work could be loved, then that would be a real vindication for me. Yet I can honestly say I have never actually written one word to achieve that goal."

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