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The Dance of Death

August Strindberg’s masterpiece gets a lucid, accessible contemporary adaptation by Irish author Conor McPherson for the CSC revival directed by Victoria Clark.

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Richard Topol and Cassie Beck in a scene from Conor McPherson’s version of Strindberg’s “The Dance of Death” at Classic Stage Company (Photo credit Joan Marcus)

Victor Gluck, Editor-in-Chief

Victor Gluck, Editor-in-Chief

August Strindberg’s masterpiece, The Dance of Death, may just be the most excoriating view of marriage ever written: a couple married for nearly 25 years tear each other to pieces on a daily basis, including for the benefit of a visitor, the wife’s cousin. At the end of the play, things return to how they were at the beginning, suggesting it will all happen again on the following day. Suggested by Strindberg’s own disastrous marriages, the play, as unpleasant as it might be for some, has the ring of truth, of a minority life lived. Though Edward Albee claimed he had never read the play before he wrote Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, few theater people believe him. Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night owes a good deal to this precursor as well.

You would never know this from Victoria Clark’s production at the Classic Stage Company, performed in rotating rep with the Classic Stage Company’s production of Yaël Farber’s updated South African version of Strindberg’s Miss Julie, here retitled Mies Julie. Performed in a new version by Irish playwright Conor McPherson (The Weir, Shining City, The Seafarer) which eliminates several minor characters and reduces the cast of characters to the three major ones, the text of The Dance of Death is lucid and easily accessible in contemporary English.

Clark has chosen to direct the play as though it were drawing room comedy. Beginning and ending the play with a game of cards, there is the suggestion that for Edgar and Alice this is all a series of games. Outsiders cannot understand this, particularly her cousin Kurt who visits them for the first time in 15 years. Whether this is the fault of the new translation or the belief that modern audiences unfamiliar with Strindberg’s psychological nightmares would have trouble sitting through this disturbing ritual, the effect is to make The Dance of Death seem very superficial, as though Neil Simon had chosen to rewrite an O’Neill tragedy simply for humor.

Christopher Innvar, Cassie Beck and Richard Topol in a scene from Conor McPherson’s version of Strindberg’s “The Dance of Death” at Classic Stage Company (Photo credit Joan Marcus)

Edgar is the Captain in a coastal artillery fortress on an island a ferry ride from of Sweden. His wife Alice is a former actress who now resents having given up her career when she married Edgar. Their love has turned so bitter that they have turned their two children against each other, the son against his mother, and the daughter against her father, and the children are now being schooled on the mainland. As their silver wedding anniversary approaches, Alice’s cousin Kurt arrives to set up a quarantine facility on the island. Although Kurt introduced them, they have not seen him for 15 years as he has been living in America since his divorce.

Both Edgar and Alice attempt to use Kurt as a pawn in their battle. He discovers that they have become pariahs among the other officers on the island and no one will have anything to do with them. Their cook leaves after Alice insults her and there is no food in the larder to make Kurt dinner.  Alice attempts to seduce Kurt into an affair that may have started many years before. Edgar’s bouts of heart trouble and blackouts scare Kurt, while Alice reveals to him that Edgar worked with Martha, Kurt’s ex-wife, to keep him from seeing his children after the divorce. Edgar and Alice attempt various moves to destroy the other but each comes to nothing. Eventually Kurt leaves in disgust. Strindberg shows us marriage as a battleground but here there are no winners or losers. He also seems to be condemning Sweden’s divorce laws at the time which keep Edgar and Alice tied to each other.

Clark’s direction is graceful and swift though it emphasizes the comic elements over the deeper, more profound elements in the play. Richard Topol and Cassie Beck as Edgar and Alice seem to be enjoying themselves too much – which does not mean that the audience is in on the joke. The drawing room style of acting undercuts the viciousness of their attacks on each other, making the play – and their characters – rather superficial. Christopher Innvar as Kurt is more successful as he is more emotional, reacting to the horrors he discovers.

Christopher Innvar and Cassie Beck in a scene from Conor McPherson’s version of Strindberg’s “The Dance of Death” at Classic Stage Company (Photo credit Joan Marcus)

Set designer David L. Arsenault has taken a page from Friedrich Durrenmatt’s version of The Dance of Death renamed Play Strindberg in which the New York production was set in a boxing ring. Here the sitting room is on a raised oval with the audience on all four sides. However, the skimpy furniture does not tell us much about their economic situation which is often discussed in the play. Tricia Barsamian’s costumes for the men are more appropriate than for Alice who as an actress would probably be more stylish in her dress. The sound design by Quentin Chiappetta is good as far as it goes but leaves a bit to be desired: the ocean, the wind, the telegraph are all too muted to be effective.

As August Strindberg is considered the father of the modern psychological drama, productions of his major works are a necessity to understand where our current playwrights are coming from. While Conor McPherson’s new version of The Dance of Death is smooth and polished in its contemporary language, Victoria Clark’s choice to make the play less diabolical does not seem to have helped the play. This is not an easy play to bring off considering that both the last Broadway revival in 2001 with Sir Ian McKellen and Dame Helen Mirren in the Richard Greenberg adaptation, and the last Off Broadway revival by Red Bull Theater in 2013 using the Mike Poulton version with Daniel Davis and Laila Robins did not work either. Possibly we need some Swedish directors to show us the way for their national writer.

The Dance of Death (in repertory with Mies Julie through March 10, 2019)

Two Plays by August Strindberg in Repertory

Classic Stage Company

Lynn F. Angelson Theater, 136 E. 13th Street, in Manhattan

For tickets, call 866-811-4111 or visit http://www.classicstage.org

Running time: one hour and 55 minutes without an intermission

Share your thoughts in the comment section below.

Victor Gluck, Editor-in-Chief
About Victor Gluck, Editor-in-Chief (613 Articles)
Victor Gluck was a drama critic and arts journalist with Back Stage from 1980 – 2006. He started reviewing for TheaterScene.net in 2006, where he was also Associate Editor from 2011-2013, and has been Editor-in-Chief since 2014. He is a voting member of The Drama Desk, the Outer Critics Circle, the American Theatre Critics Association, and the Dramatists Guild of America. His plays have been performed at the Quaigh Theatre, Ryan Repertory Company, St. Clements Church, Nuyorican Poets Café and The Gene Frankel Playwrights/Directors Lab.

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