Sunday, February 17, 2019

The Dance of Death - Two People Praying for the End

Reviewed by Judd Hollander

"Death will come and then perhaps, life begins." A line at the end of August Strindberg's bitter comedy The Dance of Death which best sums up what the two main characters are feeling. Written in 1900, this tale of a long-suffering couple bound together by love and hate is given fresh life thanks to a powerful new version by Conor McPherson and crackling direction from Victoria Clark. The show running in repertory at Classic Stage Company with Yael Farber's adaptation of Strindberg's Miss Julie.

Set at a military island outpost off the coast of Sweden at the beginning of the 20th Century, Edgar (Richard Topol), an aging career solider close to retirement, and his somewhat younger wife Alice (Cassie Beck), have been married for almost 25 years. However from the outset it becomes clear neither can stand to be in the presence of the other. Any hint of happiness or contentment having long since disappeared via years of verbal digs and spiteful comments. Ones ranging from Edgar's complaining about Alice's piano playing, to Alice never failing to remind Edgar how she forsook her stage career in order to marry him.

Drawn into this conflict is Kurt (Christopher Innvar), a man newly assigned to the island garrison, and whose past interweaves with both Alice and Edger. Their prior encounters may also have something to do with why Kurt left his wife and family more than 15 years earlier. Though Kurt, at first glimpse, now seems to be on the proverbial straight and narrow, it’s not long before his own inner demons - ones he thought long put to rest – begin to emerge as he finds himself being pulled into the hell Edgar and Alice have created.
(L-R) Christopher Innvar, Cassie Beck and Richard Topol in The Dance of Death at Classic Stage Company. Photo by Joan Marcus.
While the venom Alice and Edgar have for each other may be obvious, what takes longer to recognize is the deep affection that's still present between them. Disgusted over how their lives have turned out, both are still unwilling to cast off the devastation their marriage has become. The two locked in mortal combat for so long that without it, each would basically cease to exist. This poisonous bond the reason for the most dysfunctional relationship to hit the stage until Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Indeed, there are more than a few echoes of Strindberg in that later work. Particularly with a very nasty game of "get the guests" – or in this case, "guest".

As the battle between Alice and Edgar becomes ever more bitter, Kurt finds himself not only trapped in the crossfire, but also unsure of exactly who to believe; and thus offer his support and sympathy. It’s this yin and yang effect, one beautifully executed by the entire cast and creative team, that makes the show so fascinating to watch. Alice and Edgar each trying to play the sympathy card, only to have their efforts morph into a desperate need to come out on top, no matter who is actually in the right. The entire experience akin to watching an impending head-on collision of two locomotives racing toward each other at full speed. One completely unable to look away from the inevitable destruction, while at the same time wondering in what condition(s) the combatants will emerge in the aftermath.

McPherson and Clark must be also be commended on the way they are able to make the production continually walk a fine line between black comedy and bleak drama. All while still allowing enough space for Beck and Topol to explore just who Alice and Edgar are under the layers of virtual armor they always wear. These two elements of the story are played so close together, there were times the audience wasn’t sure whether to laugh or gasp during some of the exchanges. Another particularly nice touch was how both characters silently made their initial appearance in the show. Not so much walking as gliding silently onto the stage and then beginning an almost macabre dance with each other. One setting the tone for much of what follows.

Cassie Beck and Richard Topol in The Dance of Death at Classic Stage Company. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Topol gives a fine performance as Edgar. A somewhat mealy-mouthed sort who clings to his supposed principles as if they were the holy scriptures. He blaming his failure to move further in his career - he has only achieved the rank of captain - because of his continual refusal to play the political games necessary for advancement.

Beck is excellent as Alice, perfectly matching Topol in their characters' back and forth struggle for supremacy. Beck showing Alice to be a perennially angry soul, who takes her misfortunes out on everyone in her orbit. A main reason the couple can never keep any household staff. Yet in reality, both Alice's and Edgar's outbursts are little more than excuses for their own failures. They choosing to blame others for their actions - ones which have left them virtually ostracized by the rest of personnel on the island - rather than even think of accepting some of the fault themselves.

Innvar does well as Kurt, a sort of stand-in for the audience, as he tries to sort out the stories Edgar and Alice tell - while at the same time trying desperately to hold on to his own dignity and moral compass. An effort which soon gives way to his just trying to survive their onslaught one piece.

Quentin Chiappetta's sound design efforts - which include the sounds of the ocean, seagulls and a off-shore marker buoy - do an essential job in bringing forth the feelings of isolation and loneliness which are central to the story. Nicely adding to this effect are the different set pieces of furniture by David L. Arsenault; said objects all appearing well-worn from years of use. Lighting by Stacey Derosier also works well here, particularly in the opening sequence.

A sobering tale about how the feelings of love and hate are two sides of the same coin, this production of The Dance of Death hits the mark perfectly while being a textbook example of how to blow the dust of a work more than a century old without taking away its original intent.

Featuring: Cassie Beck (Alice), Richard Topol (Edgar), Christopher Innvar (Kurt)

The Dance of Death

By August Strindberg

In a New Version by Conor McPherson

Scenic Design: David L. Arsenault

Costume Design: Tricia Barsamian

Lighting Design: Stacey Derosier

Sound Design: Quentin Chiappetta

Original Music: Jeff Blumenkrantz

Fight and Intimacy Direction: Alicia Rodis, Claire Warden

Production Stage Manager: Roxana Khan

Assistant Stage Manager: Janelle Caso

Properties Designer: Alexander Wylie

Casting: Telsey + Company, Adam Caldwell, CSA
                William Cantler, CSA, Karvn Casl, CSA

Press Representative: Blake Zidell and Associates

Directed by Victoria Clark

Presented by Classic Stage Company
136 East 13th Street
Tickets: 212-352-3101 (toll free: 866-811-4111) or
Running Time: 1 hour, 50 minutes, no intermission
Closes: March 10, 2019

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