Sunday, 10 February 2019

Theatre Review: August Strindberg’s The Dance of Death, Classic Stage Company, NYC

A couple, Edgar and Alice, approach their twenty-fifth wedding anniversary in a marriage based on mutual hatred and co-dependency in August Strindberg’s bleak 1900 play, The Dance of Death.

Physically and socially isolated (they live on a secluded island and dislike their neighbours, Edgar’s colleagues in the Swedish military), the monotony of their constant bickering is broken by the arrival of a figure from their pasts—Alice’s cousin Kurt.

Soon one dysfunctional relationship becomes three as the trio’s jibes grow crueller and the stakes for all higher.

Richard Topol, Cassie Beck and Christopher Innver in the CSC's production
The Classic Stage Company’s production makes use of Strindberg’s first version of the play, with Cassie Beck as Alice, Christopher Innver as Kurt and Richard Topol as Edgar. The staging is in the round, with just enough props to suggest the period setting. But the subject matter feels modern—Kurt’s child custody issues are relatable and the married pair is reminiscent of many unhappy couples today.

Memorable moments include Alice’s sporadic playing on the piano—mimed here, with the music coming from offstage, a ghostly and strangely fitting, if practical, choice—and her husband’s sabre dance (the dance of the title, since his wife hopes more than once that the exercise will cause him to have a heart attack). It’s hard not to think of Strindberg’s rival Henrik Ibsen and Nora’s desperate tarantella in The Doll’s House (1879) as Topol veers about the stage, kicking the air.

The three actors do a good job sustaining energy in a tense and emotionally taxing performance, although Beck arguably has a less sympathetic character to work with than the men. I left feeling dramatic satisfaction at the cyclical conclusion of the play, relief at escaping the claustrophobic home of the central pair and fear at the confining nature of marriage—all very Strinbergian.

Do you know of any other plays the Secret Victorianist should review next? Let me know—here, on Facebook, or by tweeting @SVictorianist.

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