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Dance of Death by Elyse Sommer

Hatred and love! All is one. The same source of energy. Sometimes positive, sometimes negative electricity. But one and the same
--- August Strindberg. Unlike Alice, who declares Only death can tear us apart, Strindberg parted from three wives via divorce.
Dance of Death
Helen Mirren
& Ian McKellen
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
Ibsen and Strindberg have many debtors among modern playwrights. Most, like Arthur Miller and Edward Albee, built on the foundation stones laid by their theatrical fathers with brand-new plays. These days, there's a tendency to travel two career tracks, as playwright and adapter. In the latter role, well known living playwrights seem to be gravitating towards making somber and usually difficult plays by dead playwrights less somber and more accessible.

A few years ago Frank McGuiness gave us a scrappier Nora for Ibsen's A Doll's House. This season we have two such old-new classics on Broadway. Ibsen's Hedda Gabler has a more comic bite to her tongue courtesy of Jon Robin Baitz. Strindberg's Edgar and Alice remain trapped in their vitriolic Dance of Death , but thanks to playwright Richard Greenberg's ministrations their verbal duels are more comic and easier to follow.

Greenberg's new take on the role models for all unhappily, undivorced couples has much sharp and, yes, funny, dialogue to recommend it and director Sean Mathias has provided a less enclosed, more au courant directorial vision. However, what makes this Dance of Death an event no theater lover will want to sit out is that it stars Ian McKellen and Helen Mirren.

McKellen is one of England's thespian treasures. He is not handsome nor is there a display of well-developed muscles when he takes off his jacket. What has been carefully developed is a magnificent voice and an emotional range that is evident in every word and pause, on the ever-changing map of his face and in the agility of body movement which at one point in Dance includes nimbly sliding down the banister of a circular staircase. In the unsympathetic part of a military officer who grandiosely thinks of himself as the master of the Swedish island where his career and marriage have festered for twenty-five years, McKellen never tries to win your sympathy; yet he mesmerizes us as he changes from caustic tyrant to a man who knows that he must succumb to death.

With Helen Mirren as his opponent in this acrimonious battle of the sexes we have a rare opportunity to experience what it must have been like to see other great stage pairings bring electricity to their roles. Mirren, a sensuous, unconventionally beautiful woman, is best known to American audiences through her television and film work, but she is also well schooled in the stage actor's craft Like McKellen she delivers her lines with gratifying clarity. Her Alice is, like his Edgar, an emotional chameleon, her looks of contempt and outrage as potent as any bullet. You have only to take in the pleasure and anticipation that light up her face at the possibility of Edgar's death to realize that her disdainful remarks are indeed deep-seated.

Alice and Edgar's sour love-hate relationship has strong autobiographical roots in Strindberg's misogyny as borne out by three miserable marriages. The games they play have long stopped being new or even shocking, but they play them brilliantly.

The first scene sets up the shifts from occasional real and almost companionable games of cards to psychological gotcha duels. Besides Albee's George and Martha (Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?), who have become all battling spouses' cliche, there are films dating from Scenes From a Marriage through War of the Roses and American Beauty. Greenberg's adaptation seems to tap into this audience familiarity. Consequently, without McKellen and Mirren, this would tend to be just another dysfunctional marital drama -- but with costumes and a spooky mess of a house to lend a gothic flavor and serve as a metaphor for the relationship (the house is a fortress once used as a prison, and remains so figuratively).

The plot unreels over the course three days, all set in Santo Loquasto's moody vision of the two floor high fortress interior and the Island world beyond. The doorway separating inside and outside is open, but Captain Edgar and his one-time actress wife are sealed into their miserable "little hell" as if that frame had a solid iron door. To Edgar everyone is "a bottom feeder" and they have no social intercourse with anyone. The neatly uniformed guard who periodically marches by in the distance seems director Sean Mathias's way of emphasizing the disordered state of affairs inside the fortress.

While this may all sound as if Dance of Death is a play for two actors (which, in terms of its must-see value, it is), there is a third character pivotal to the plot. That's Alice's cousin Kurt (David Strathairn), who arrives on the island after a fifteen years of lost communication to take a job with the local doctor.

Edgar still harbors a grudge against Kurt for fostering his marriage to Alice (though this turns out to be as untrue as Alice's pretensions that she had an acting career to give up). Kurt has his own history of an unhappy marriage but except for the fact that this cost him custody of his children, his main role is as a potential ally to be won over in the ultimate Alice-Edgar battle. Being a rather nebulous character (and not made any less so by Strathairn's interpretation of the role), Kurt see-saws from one to the other, only to run off into the mist, leaving the unhappy pair on a note that they may perhaps make the best of their enforced togetherness, at least until Alice's often expressed wish for Edgar's death comes true.

As good as McKellen and Mirren are, some two hours of unrelieved acrimony simply don't make a very persuasive case for this ever so slightly less depressing ending. Actually, Strindberg did write his own hopeful ending in a second part of the play in which Kurt's son Allan and Alice and Edgar's daughter Julie have a love scene that indicates that something good might rise from the ashes of these bombed out lives. As it is the son and daughter are mentioned several times but only to establish that Alice, Edgar and Kurt are all alienated from their children.

The biggest mystery of this production is the casting of two able Equity actors, Anne Pitoniak and Keira Naughton, in walk-on parts. Pitoniak has a few brief moments as an old woman who is an apparition of death; Naughton shows up fleetingly as a sulky maid. Her big line, "Be my guest ", is one of the adaptation's few jarring linguistic updates.

All quibbles aside, this Dance of Death is a stunning to look at production. Depressing as its story is, it holds you in its spell. And, to repeat, Ian McKellen and Helen Mirren, are a treat. I'd like to see them team up again and again and again.

A Dream Play
Miss Julie

Dance of Death

Written by August Strindberg
New adaptation Richard Greenberg
Directed by Sean Mathias
Cast:Edgar/ Ian McKellen, Alice/Helen Mirren, Kurt/David Strathairn, Old Woman/Anne Pitoniak, Jenny/Keira Naughton, Sentry/ Eric Martin Brown
Set and Costume Design: Santo Loquasto
Lighting Design: Natasha Katz
Sound Design & Composer: Dan Moses Schreier
Running Time: 2 1/2 hours, including one 15-minute intermission
Broadhurst Theatre, 235 W. 44th St. (7th/8th Aves) 239-6200
9/17/01-1/13/01; opening 10/11/01
Tues-Fri 8pm, Wed & Sat 2pm, Sun 3pm Saturday 8pm -- $50-77
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based October 16th performance
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©Copyright 2001, Elyse Sommer,
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