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A CurtainUp Review
The Dance of Death
By Elyse Sommer
Besides serving as the foundation stone for plays like Albee's, as well as films like The War of the Roses, Strindberg's unhappily undivorced Alice and Edgar have been irresistible challenges for stellar actors and directors to take on. Add to that the living playwrights who've taken break from their own writing to make classic but difficult plays by dead playwrights less somber and difficult.
In the last Broadway production of the indeed somber and difficult The Dance of Death, director Sean Mathias steered Helen Mirren and Ian McKellen through their macabre dance as re-envisioned by Richard Greenberg. Now, Strindberg's play is back in New York at the more intimate downtown Classic Stage. The adapter this time is Conor McPherson whose own plays are filled with troubled characters (my favorites: Girl From the North Country &Shining City).
Cassie Beck, Richard Topol and Christopher Innvar are smartly directed by Victoria Clark who's best known as a golden-voiced performer but is also traveling on her second career track as a director. Though Topol and Beck's Edgar and Alice remain trapped in their vitriolic marital prison, Conor McPherson and Ms. Clark have made their duels more dynamic, and at times even funny. McPherson's take on this quintessentially miserable yet never parted couple has much sharp dialogue to lend color to their display of conflicting feelings of love, loathing and insecurity.
McPherson's stage directions call for a fairly fully furnished, realistic interior of the coastal artillery fortress the aging captain and his younger former actress wife call home —and where they nurture their delusions about his fading career and the theatrical success she gave up to marry him.
Director Clark has provided a very CSC-ish staging. That means she relies mostly on text and performance, and just enough props to accommodate the action. That scenic minimalism even allows for an imaginary piano for Alice to occasionally play. Given that the theater has been reconfigured for the audience to be seated all around the stage, McConnor's concept plays out like a real boxing match.
The first "round" begins with our two combatants, true to the play's title, dancing. (Composer Jeff Blumenkrantz most effectively accents the action and moods throughout). That stylistic dance is followed by what promises to be a companionable card game.
However, like Albee's Martha and George, Alice and Edgar are more into one-upmanship games that quickly take on the flavor of the metaphoric boxing match setup. The props placed around the oval playing area look as if they belong in a well-appointed turn of the century home, the fact that this home was once used as a prison aptly symbolized how Alice and Edgar have imprisoned themselves in a toxic relationship that has alienated them from their children and all social intercourse.
Richard Topol and Cassie Beck bring plenty of sizzle to their roles. They not only hold our attention with every word they speak but their facial expressions and body movements.
Topol's physical performance is particularly impressive. His chamelonic shift from amazingly agile tyrant to an ailing, at times comatose, man on the cusp of death. The actor's experience with Shakespeare roles is on full display in a Lear-like mad scene in which he rises from seeming to be felled by a stroke.
Cassie Beck's Alice is, like Topol's Edgar, an emotional chameleon. Her words are punctuated with looks of contempt and outrage as potent as any bullet or dagger. Her gleeful looks when her stated wish for Edgar's death seems to have come true make us realize how embedded into her psyche her disdain and despair are.
The arrival of a third character takes the two-way sparring into more explosive territory. That's Alice's cousin Kurt (Christopher Innvar) with whom they've not been in touch for fifteen years, but who's now coming to the island as the newly appointed Master of Quarantine.
it doesn't take long for Kurt's return into their orbit to ratchet up memories of their less than trouble free history. The interactions between the trio, and the various pas-de-deux between Edgar and Kurt, and Alice and Kurt turn this into a play about not one but two marriages.
Though Kurt is also a veteran of the marital wars, his marriage did end, but the divorce cost him custody of his children. We also learn that Edgar still harbors a grudge against Kurt for fostering his marriage to Alice — though this actually is no truer than Alice and Edgar's claims of career successes.
Kurt isn't as fully defined a character as Alice and Edgar, and his past relation with her is more hinted at than perfectly clear. Thus, while his background serves to confirm Strindberg's view of all marriages as unhappy, his main function is to deal with Alice and Edgar's efforts to win his allegiance. That said, Innvar expertly see-saws between the pair. He is sympathetic and compassionate when Edgar confides his fear of death to him. A scene in which Alice succeeds in stirring up his apparently long dormant passion for her is electrifying.
As already mentioned, Ms. Clark's direction is in keeping with CSC's de-emphasis of bells and whistles stagecraft. Yet, her production is quite exciting both visually and aurally.
Cassie Beck gets to wear and look great in several different costumes, which underscores the frustration of her having nowhere to be seen and admired. Costumer Tricia Barsamian's outfits for the men are also handsome and apt.
No matter how smart and mordantly funny the dialogue and the actors' delivery, Strindberg is never easy. Therefore, perhaps one of Ms. Clark's smartest directorial decision came during one of this Dance of Death's final preview performance. While it still ran two hours during the weekend before the opening, the performance I saw a few days after the weekend clocked in at an hour and 45-minutes. If another ten minutes are lost by the official opening night, so much the better.
Of course, no trimming is needed for the 75-minute long Mies Julie, that's the Dance's repertory partner. To read my colleague Simon Saltzman's review of that play go here.
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August Strindberg's Dance of Deathin adapted by Conor McPherson
Directed by Victoria Clark
Cast: Cassie Beck as Alice, Richard Topol as Edgar, and Christopher Innvar as Kurt.
David L. Arsenault: Scenic Design
Tricia Barsamian: Costumes
Stacey Derosier:Lighting Design
Quentin Chiappetta: Sound Design
Run Time:1 hour 45 minutes with no intermission.
Stage Manager: Roxana Khan
Classic Stage- Lynn F. Angelson Theater 136 East 13th Street
In Repertory with Mies Julie, from 1/15/19; opening 2/10/18; closing 3/10/19
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer at February 5th Press Preview
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