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A CurtainUp Review
The Dance of Death
David Lohrey

When I looked death in the face, life presented itself from a different angle.
--- Edgar
Elise Stone & Craig Smith
Elise Stone and Craig Smith
(Photo: Gerry Goodstein)
A repertory theatre should be reviewed on the strength of its season, not on the merits or failings of a single production. August Strindberg's The Dance of Death currently in rotating repertory at the Jean Cocteau Theatre is part of an extraordinary season of plays which has included works by Tennessee Williams, Sophocles, and Shaw. Taken together the Cocteau has done more than rise to the September 11 occasion; it has survived and flourished. As a downtown theatre it deserves recognition for its courage.

This production of The Dance of Death has had to find life in the shadow of the recent Broadway production. The memory of that production makes seeing this one fresh, impossible. One is inevitably drawn to comparisons. For me, however, it was not so much a matter of comparing production qualities, but of watching the present enrich the past. This production deepened my understanding of the play and focused my attention on details either absent from the uptown version, or obscured by the dazzle of star power.

Robert Klingelhoeffer's set focuses the audience's attention on the players by not creating a distracting vista. Although Edgar (Craig Smith) may be a Napoleonic figure, his battlefield remains firmly in the parlor with his wife, Alice (Elise Stone). Klingelhoeffer does well too with his set's color scheme, a rich blend of somber hues that bring to mind Scandinavian melancholy. The set, the furniture, Robin I. Shane's costumes: everything works together to create a sense of permanence. If this is a domestic hell, then it must be for eternity. Any sense of the temporary or transient would undermine Strindberg's idea of material death versus spiritual life. It is a solid, properly suffocating environment.

The intimacy also does a great deal toward clarifying the role of Curt (Jason Crowl), Alice's cousin, who can all too easily be crushed and made to seem superfluous, as was the case in the Broadway show. Director Karen Lordi does well to keep the focus on the three characters, even going so far as to place Curt center stage, for this is after all Strindberg himself, playing the role of the witness. He wrote this play in response to having been forced to care for his sister's dying husband, after whom he modeled Edgar. What can come of a heartless man when his heart fails? This is the play's central question. Were Edgar not able to confess his spiritual awakening to Curt the play would lack substance.

The acting is superb. Craig Smith is masterful as Edgar, the grief-stricken megalomaniac. This actor commands the stage, reminding one of George C. Scott, and other larger than life American actors. He is perfect for this role and ready to play Lear. He even looks at times like Strindberg. Smith is hard to like in this role, but then again I don't think he is meant to be likeable. When he comes in, cane in one hand, sword in the other, using the two as a kind of walker, Smith resembles Richard the Third, a crippled monster. It is a virtuoso performance, and stands in the shadow of no other..

Elise Stone is less successful as Alice, the former stage actress turned frustrated housewife. This is one fierce character, no doubt, and Ms Stone rises to the occasion, no mistake about that. But her rage doesn't quite convince, and part of the problem is Ms Stone's irrepressible sensuality. She looks too good. She preens, seeming at times almost like Cleopatra. What has this woman been denied? Somehow the anger doesn't have a source, and therefore seems melodramatic. Has Edgar's strutting overshadowed Alice? Not this tigress. Ms Stone plays too large, so it becomes hard to believe she could ever be a man's victim. If her husband had pushed her into the sea, as she charges, she would have dragged him in with her, and eaten him alive.

Although he is ten years too young for the role, Jason Crowl plays Curt brilliantly. In an age when 90% of our actors never acquire vocal training, it is a pleasure to listen to someone who can actually speak the language. He looks great, too, cutting a dashing figure in white formal wear. He is more than able to hold his own with Mr. Smith, but appears a bit awkward in his intimate scenes with Ms Stone. Again, this may be a problem of age. Nonetheless, Crowl properly conveys the character's moral disgust, while at the same time making clear his own vulnerability. He can no longer take or take on Edgar and Alice, and so he flees.
Ms Lordi's direction is for the most part flawless. This is an impressive, daringly well-acted production. There are, however, a few not so small quibbles. The presence of two television sets placed awkwardly and purposelessly on stage reminds us again of the poverty of academic theatre artists who promote so-called innovation over aesthetics, even when that innovation is stale, over-used, and imitative. The same goes for the large backlit framed photo that changes color according to dramatic mood. When the turbulent seascape turned bright red during Curt and Alice's love scene, bad taste can be said to have triumphed over art. Why Ms Lordi would allow such distractions boggles the mind.

Even these insults to the eye, however, can and should be overlooked and forgiven; this Dance of Death deserves much praise. Seeing it for the second time in such a short period of time only convinces me that the Cocteau's true genius lies in picking winners.

THE DANCE OF DEATH.
Playwright: August Strindberg.
Translator: Edwin Bjorkman.
Director: Karen Lordi.

Cast: Craig Smith, Elise Stone, Jason Crowl, Kathryn Foster.
Set Designer: Robert Klinghoefer.
Costume Design: Robin I. Shane.
Lighting Design: Brian Aldous.
Composer Original Music: Robert Pound.
Running Time: 2 hours, with one 15 minute intermission
Jean Cocteau Repertory, at the Bouwerie Lane Theatre, 330 Bowery, New York, (212) 677-0060.
2/17/2002 - 5/12/2002, in rotating repertory. Call for a complete schedule.
Reviewed by David Lohrey based on performance of 2/21/02.
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