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Dance of Death
The last major New York mounting was on Broadway in 2001, starring Ian McKellen and Helen Mirren. Decades earlier, Robert Shaw and Zoe Caldwell were diabolically paired at the Vivian Beaumont in a 1974 version, and Michael Strong and Viveca Lindfors joined in hellish stage matrimony at the Ritz in 1971. If you’re game for a screen adaptation, then you can always rent the 1969 film with Lawrence Olivier playing opposite Geraldine McEwan. But good as this movie is, nothing replaces a live stage performance. And, with Daniel Davis and Laila Robins as Edgar and Alice, and Derek Smith as Gustav, Red Bull scores a homerun Scandinavian-style.
The story is a haunting one: It takes place in the living quarters of an island fortress. A military officer Edgar and his wife Alice, on the eve of their silver wedding anniversary, are taking inventory of their conjugal years together. They comb through the particulars of their personal lives which include two children, who attend school on the mainland.
We learn that Edgar’s military career leveled off years ago, though he lives under the delusion that he is a famous author (he wrote a mediocre rifle instruction textbook that has since been replaced at the army schools) and an influential man on the island. Alice is a former actress who gave up the stage to marry Edgar, only to discover that the glamour and adventure she sought was a figment of her romantic imagination.
Just as Edgar and Alice begin to sharpen their wits for an evening of deadly marital warfare, Alice’s younger cousin Gustav arrives on the scene, the very person who acted as matchmaker for them 25 years ago. Gustav, who is the newly-appointed Quarantine Master on the island, intends to spend a peaceful evening with the couple. But when Edgar suddenly turns ill, he remains at their home to help him through his crisis and give emotional support to Alice. The rest is a journey through love and hate, jealousy and ultimately hope.
Joseph Hardy (Tony Award for Child’s Play) directs, and leans lightly into the play's comedy. Yes, tragedy is always in the wings here. But you will more likely find yourself laughing than crying as Alice and Edgar verbally spar with each other, rattling skeletons in their closets and inviting ghosts from the past to walk into their present lives. Hardy reminds you too that Dance of Death is a honest-to-goodness love story. And, in spite of Alice and Edgar’s repeated assertions that they hate each other’s company (Edgar threatens to divorce Alice and remarry, and Alice tries to seduce her old flame Gustav), they remain “welded and bolted” together.
Love story aside, Poulton’s adaptation adds something new: Saint Saens’ “Dance Macabre.” Strindberg may well be rolling over in his grave at this, since this tone poem was dear to his heart and his original choice to include in his play. In a program note, Poulton explains that Strindberg removed the tune when he learned that his rival playwright Ibsen was already using the music in one of his own stage works
The creative team is top-notch. Beowulf Boritt’s set has a turn-of-the-century look, with just enough military paraphernalia to drive home the fact that Edgar feeds on his military identity. Brandon Wolcott’s sound design is pitch-perfect, whether it’s when Alice is playing a lively air or dirge on the piano or the wind is gusting up a storm outdoors. When it comes to the costumes, Alejo Vietti gets a little too fussy with Alice’s long dresses, but gives clean lines to Edgar’s gold-trimmed uniform and Gustav’s conservative outfit.
The acting is strong in Act 1, and gets stronger in Act 2. Davis plays Edgar to the hilt as the arrogant military officer who has vampire-like traits (Strindberg originally titled his play The Vampire). Williams inhabits Alice with much vim and vigor. Not to be overlooked is Derek Smith’s Gustav. Smith’s character is more than a foil here and often acts as a catalyst to the action. Though no saint himself, he speaks eloquently on faith and encourages Edgar to look truth in the eye.
Strindberg’s Dance of Death is a scathing portrait of a marriage, and anticipates the dysfunctional marriage at the heart of Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. As helmed by Hardy and performed by the actors, the laughs of this translation's pumped up comedy are guaranteed.
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