THE DANCE OF DEATH Theatre Review
This A Noise Within production of the Swedish playwright August Strindberg’s 1900 The Dance of Death is expertly acted and directed by Julia Rodriguez-Elliott and Geoff Elliott. The latter also co-stars as the former artillery captain Edgar, who is enmeshed in the most miserable marriage this side of Edward Albee’s George and Martha in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, not to mention those suffering Scandinavian spouses in countless Ingmar Bergman movies often starring the Swede’s stock players, such as Liv Ullmann, in downbeat films such as 1973’s bleak Scenes From a Marriage
In Dance ANW Resident Artist Susan Angelo masterfully depicts has-been actress Alice, the other half of this unhappy marriage -- or perhaps I should say the other “third” of what becomes a triangle, once the couple’s old “friend” and Alice’s cousin, Kurt (Eric Curtis Johnson), enters the fray. In a way Angelo is playing an updated version of the character she also splendidly portrayed in last summer’s Will Geer’s Theatricum Botanicum production of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, wherein her Beatrice bickers and verbally jousts with Benedick, in an Elizabethan England version of the not-so-merry war between the sexes.
ANW’s Dance is a new version adapted by the noted Irish playwright Conor McPherson. What ANW presented on stage seems to be The Dance of Death I, not including the second part of the play, which Strindberg also wrote in 1900. McPherson’s adaptation stresses the gallows humor aspect of Strindberg’s work, and many in the nearly sold out opening night aud, including your humble reviewer, laughed and smiled at the black comedy elements -- although many of the not-quite guffaws might stick in your throat.
The Dance of Death not only clearly influenced Albee but also the Theatre of the Absurd. There’s something terrifying about this grim, glum, gloomy view of marriage and “love”, with the couples tearing each other apart, instead of supporting, nurturing and (dare I say?) loving one another. What’s the point? I never forgot this haunting exchange in Mike Nichols’ version of Virginia Woolf?, with real life spouses Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor playing the characters to the hilt:
George: You can sit around with the gin running out of your mouth; you can humiliate me; you can tear me to pieces all night, that's perfectly okay, that's all right.
Martha: You can stand it!
George: I cannot stand it!
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Martha: You can stand it, you married me for it!
YIKES! This distressing thought is truly frightening. Is this why Edgar and Alice married? Do they hate themselves and each other so much that the purpose of their marriage is to psychologically and physically ransack one another? Is it all one big game of marital discord? If that’s the sorry case, so much for wedded bliss…
This depressing notion is a strain of thought repeatedly expressed in arts reflecting the Scandinavian psyche: Dramatists Strindberg, Henrik Ibsen, painter Edvard Munch (who unleashed upon the world The Scream), filmmakers Victor Sjöström, Carl Theodor Dreyer (Christ, have you ever seen 1955’s Ordet?) and of course Bergman, whose 1957 masterpiece The Seventh Seal literally closes with a dance of death. Even the marriage of Birgitte Nyborg (Sidse Babett Knudsen), the fictionalized first female prime minister of Denmark in the stellar Danish TV series Borgen, falls apart -- not even her nation’s most powerful person can keep her marriage together. (If you’ve missed it on the tube, or just want to binge watch, a complete three season DVD set of Borgen -- arguably one of the best series in television history -- has just been released.) So what gives with those Danes, Fins, Norwegians, Icelanders and especially those Swedes? Is it those long winter nights? Or is this existential, angst-ridden side just another stage/celluloid stereotypes? Inquiring minds want to know.
In any case, this is beyond the review’s range and ANW’s choice to go with McPherson’s adaptation, which accentuates the dark humor presumably inherent in Strindberg’s original intent, lightens the load and makes this classic more palatable for contemporary theatergoers. Leavened by levity and laughter, the comedic aspect makes the tragic elements easier to take.
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Strindberg fun facts: According to the playbill, “in 1884 he was tried and later acquitted for blasphemy for a collection of short stories he wrote called Getting Married.” The writer also wed and divorced an actress (Siri Von Essen -- no, not the disembodied knowledge navigating voice of those Apple doohickeys), and his third wife, Harriet Bosse, was also a thesp he eventually separated from -- which might inform Strindberg’s jaundiced view of Dance’s Alice, the onetime actress.
Perhaps it’s just coincidental or maybe something’s in the air, but coming hard on the heels of WGTB’s Much Ado, this is the fourth play I’ve seen in about a month that deals with troubled marriages/ relationships wherein the alienated participants rip each other to shreds, including the Davidson/Valentini Theatre at the Los Angeles LGBT Center’s production of Albee’s The Goat, The Theatre @ Boston Court’s adaptation of Samuel Beckett’s Happy Days plus Rogue Machine’s Cock. Along with ANW’s excellent Dance they are still on the boards -- see them all for a quartet of dramatized marital mayhem and relationship wretchedness, with laughter amidst the agony. Let the games begin!
The Dance of Death runs through Nov. 23 at A Noise Within, 3352 East Foothill Blvd., Pasadena, CA 91107. For exact times, dates and more info: (636)356-3100, ext. 1; www.anoisewithin.org.