It’s tough for me to be objective about Jesse Berger’s Red Bull Theatre. His track record really has been extraordinary. His company first came to my attention with their electrically theatrical (and humanely moving) production of The Duchess of Malfi from 2010, and with pretty much everything they’ve done since - The Witch of Edmonton, Genet’s The Maids, and, earlier this season, Ben Jonson’s Volpone - they’ve gone from strength to strength. (And in between shows, they stage “Revelation Readings” of off-the-run classics that frequently outshine other venues’ full-scale productions; highlights for me have included David Ives’s adaptation of Corneille’s The Liar and Tom Stoppard’s adaptation of Pirandello’s Henry IV, but I’m quite sure I’ve missed much of the company’s best work, they do so much.) So it goes without saying that you should see their current offering, Strindberg’s Dance of Death as adapted by Mike Poulton, directed by Joseph Hardy.
I’m coming late to Strindberg, but I’m trying to make up for tardiness with enthusiasm. And there’s been some excellent Strindberg on offer in New York these days, from the Creditors that BAM brought over from London three years ago to last year’s South African adaptation staged at St. Ann’s Warehouse, Mies Julie. What’s striking to me is how perfectly contemporary Strindberg (with a little adaptation) feels; like Chekhov, once you shake off some of the surface period trappings with a bit of adaptation, you discover a frighteningly accessible internal world – accessible to our own sensibilities, and, frighteningly, accessible to an internal depth that gives us pause.
Dance of Death is another story of a couple’s descent into games of mutual torture. Edgar (Daniel Davis) and Alice (Laila Robins) have been living together for twenty-five years on a Swedish coastal island where Edgar is captain of artillery. But is this living? To marry Edgar, Alice gave up a promising stage career. His career, meanwhile, stalled midway. Before long, marriage had decayed into trench warfare, with the children periodically sent over the top for fruitless charges on the enemy’s guns. Now, the kids are grown, and moved to the mainland. They have no friends; they can’t even keep servants anymore, because who would want to live in such a miserable house? She yearns for his death; he alternated between gleeful anticipation of same and spiteful determination to live forever.
Cutting into this fatal waltz is Gustav (Derek Smith), a former lover of Alice’s who may (or may not) have introduced her to Edgar, who has (improbably) moved back to this bleak island seeking refuge from his own mediocre career and failed marriage (which may in fact have been wrecked by Edgar). Immediately, Alice and Edgar assail him with a view to winning his allegiance in the marital contest. For a while, Gustav believes that he’s an active player in the game, capable of either pitying Edgar or destroying him, of loving Alice or rejecting her, but it becomes clear by the end that he’s been nothing but another piece of ground for them to fight over, and that he’ll be destroyed long before either of them give way.
Comparisons to Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? are entirely apropos; indeed, particular scenes from that masterwork feel like they were directly inspired by scenes from Dance of Death. Another point of comparison, though, would be Bergman, particularly “Scenes From a Marriage.” In Who’s Afraid, the games George and Martha play are ultimately a survival strategy – specifically, their mutual strategy for maintaining her sanity, a strategy that, by the point the play begins, has just about run its course; and the play builds to revelations that are intended to be purgative (the last act is called an “exorcism” for a reason). Edgar’s arc is superficially similar; he is also revealed to be far more in control of events than it appeared at first. But there is no purgation; Edgar and Alice end, largely, where they began, but having renewed their vitality through combat, and from the blood of Gustav, their latest victim, the only kind of life either of them can actually participate in. Bergman’s film couple similarly can’t stop dancing around each other, can’t stop being cruel to each other and can’t stop loving each other, and expressing their love in part through cruelty. Even divorce doesn’t alter their dynamic except superficially. This is part of what I mean by saying that Strindberg feels contemporary – there is no sense that social arrangements are to blame for, or that alterations in those arrangements could cure, a malady written on the fabric of the soul.
I am less and less interested in “reviewing” productions. I suppose I’d say this one dragged a bit in the latter half of Act I, partly because there was never enough electricity between Smith and Robins ever to spark a flame, partly because the text has them dancing in a circle for a bit there. But I found Davis’s Edgar fascinatingly elusive; he led me around by the nose quite as effectively as Edgar led Alice and Gustav. In the end, I saw why she would chose to stay with the old vampire, and that’s the bloody heart of the play.
The Dance of Death plays at the Lucille Lortel Theatre through May 4th.