Review of The Dance of Death at Classic Stage Company

  • Our critic's rating:
    February 11, 2019
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    The Dance of Death, now playing at the Classic Stage Company, made me think of the lyrics from Old Man River, "I'm tired of livin' and scared of dyin'". That is the plight of the two main characters in Conor McPherson's adaptation of August Strindberg’s play.

    The play opens with an actual dance by husband, Edgar (Richard Topol) and wife, Alice (Cassie Beck) showing the timeline of their relationship - starting with the light of first love, then the annoyances of marriage and then the disdain.

    This is a marriage gutted like an animal of its entrails and left to die at the hands of the carrion-eaters of the local village. Edgar and Alice go after one another with the joy of the kill and the love of the blood. Like two spoiled, bored children they go at it again and again. Attack, retreat. Attack, retreat. They have been doing this for 25 years and they are good at it. This is in fact days before they “celebrate” their 25th anniversary. And both dread another 25. Maybe Edgar will die and soon. Alice can only hope.

    “Our long miserable mistake to ourselves,” is how Edgar describes their marriage.

    Isolated from their beloved Copenhagen on a desolate little island where the locals hate them and their own children desert them, they are left with nothing to do but torture one another.

    Edgar is military captain, 15 years older than Alice and he is sickly. He is drinking too much, there is no more money and their home that they have been given by the military is an old prison and not a place of comfort or solace.

    There is however a reprieve to their boredom with the arrival of Alice's cousin and the one who introduced them, Kurt (Christopher Innvar). Kurt the breath of fresh air, the voice of reason, is quickly poisoned by Alice and Edgar’s vile putrid selves and he himself plummets into the dark world of vengeance, hate and lust.

    Set in the round, the actors in continuous movement, the play trots along but the movement is forced, staged. These are all damn fine actors but something is missing; connection, ensemble. They are not in step. Not in tune with one another. It is subtle but the subtlety in this play rings out like a giant church bell. Which is a shame because to watch Topol and Beck sparring in the ring of their marriage giving and taking the punches should be one continuous blast for us to witness but for now it is in stops and starts, spurts of it but not enough. This is one of Strindberg's most daring of plays and was way beyond its time when first staged in 1905 and McPherson's adaptation is modern and wildly gratifying so let’s hope that as the production continues it can solidify this most interesting of takes on marriage.

    The Dance of Death is playing in repertory with Mies Julie at Classic Stage Company. Read our Mies Julie review.

    (Photo by Joan Marcus)

    "In a way, witnessing Alice and Edgar’s exchanges here feels like a weekend visit to anybody’s long-married, aging parents, with the attendant longueurs. Mr. Topol — in a role that has been portrayed with volcanic force by Laurence Olivier and Ian McKellen — seems more grumpy than enraged. And Ms. Beck’s brisk and composed Alice comes across as merely waspish instead of vitriolic. The virtue of such underplaying is that, when what the performers are saying so calmly fully registers, your jaw drops in wonder at the harshness of it. It’s an experience not unlike reading Strindberg for the first time and being jolted wide awake by its outrageousness."
    Ben Brantely for New York Times

    "Conor McPherson has adapted Strindberg’s play in plain-spoken English which makes the most of the play’s barbed Scandinavian wit. But the challenge for director Victoria Clark is the same that has plagued all who tackle this tricky story: Do you play it for tragedy or comedy, melodrama or farce? Except for a few moments of stylized choreography between scenes to suggest the “dance” that is about to unfold, Clark’s cast leans toward naturalism. This deprives the play of some of its comedic power, alas, and it leads Beck to underplay Alice’s theatricality."
    Thom Geier for The Wrap