August Strindberg

The Dance of Death

The Dance of Death feature image

The reinvigoration of a classic can sometimes depend on a good new translation, and the Irish playwright Conor McPherson (already represented this season by the musical Girl from the North Country) has done a sterling job putting juice back into August Strindberg’s The Dance of Death, one of the Swedish playwright’s masterpieces. The central couple, a captain named Edgar and his wife, Alice, are close to their 25th wedding anniversary, but their union resembles a pitched battle.

Christopher Innvar (left) is Kurt and Cassie Beck is Alice in August Strindberg’s  The Dance of Death.  Top: Innvar and Beck with Richard Topol as Edgar, the captain.

Christopher Innvar (left) is Kurt and Cassie Beck is Alice in August Strindberg’s The Dance of Death. Top: Innvar and Beck with Richard Topol as Edgar, the captain.

Edgar is the commandant of a remote artillery fortress, and the couple live in penury, constantly squabbling and insulting each other. Alice’s temper has just led her to dismiss their maid. The captain, meanwhile, has alienated everyone on the base—“I refuse to mix with that scum”—so that they have no friends.

Using McPherson’s lively refurbishment, one that is rife with gallows humor, director Victoria Clark has delivered an inspired and beautifully acted production for one half of Classic Stage Company’s Strindberg celebration—a version of Mies Julie is the other part. Anyone conditioned to think a Strindberg play is simply unrelieved gloom will be surprised by how funny Clark’s production is. When Edgar mentions their upcoming anniversary, Alice asks, “You really want to celebrate that?” 

Captain: Well of course I do. Don’t you?
Alice: I thought we might show more decorum by keeping our long miserable mistake to ourselves.

McPherson has made tweaks to the dialogue that have enhanced payoffs, as in a passage about wine.

Captain: Have we any of that zinfandel left, chilling away down there in the wine cellar?
Alice: We don’t have a wine cellar.
Captain: What happened to our wine cellar?
Alice: You mean the laundry room?

Strindberg’s original has no mention of a laundry room—only that the wine cellar hasn’t existed for five years. McPherson’s interpolation is not only faithful to the non-existence of the wine cellar, it adds a comic twist.

Perhaps most noticeable is the alteration of a passage in Strindberg when the captain and his wife speak about making their miserable marriage more palatable by bringing a third party into the household. In the original, the captain suggests that Alice bring in a woman friend; she suggests he bring in a male chum. But McPherson sexualizes the passage so deftly that one wonders if Strindberg’s original wasn’t merely a coded version of the same idea:

Captain: You know, I was going to suggest… that perhaps, some evening, we might eh… well, invite a female companion up for a… for an evening. You know.
Alice: I’d prefer we invited a male friend.
Captain: Right. Well… I’m not sure that worked out too well the last time. I mean it is a while ago and it was certainly interesting. I’m not saying no, but my God…
Alice: Yes, I know, afterwards was…
Captain: Yes, the aftermath was…

Beck and Topol play a couple locked in a toxic marriage in Strindberg’s classic. Photographs by Joan Marcus.

Beck and Topol play a couple locked in a toxic marriage in Strindberg’s classic. Photographs by Joan Marcus.

As the unhappy couple, Richard Topol and Cassie Beck are terrific. They find the nuances in the advances and retreats of their constant battle. Topol’s captain is overbearing and smug, but declining physically. As for Alice, Strindberg’s misogyny is on display, as Beck’s chilly spouse hopes for her husband’s demise. By turns Topol and Beck bring out the nihilism in the dialogue, the grim, life-or-death struggle of their marriage. They are well-matched monsters.

Their battle takes a serious turn when Kurt (Christopher Innvar), the doctor who introduced them and who has just been assigned to the garrison, arrives. The concerned and sympathetic Kurt is drawn into their web until Edgar manages to have his son transferred to the fort. Since Kurt is forbidden by the courts ever to see his children, Edgar’s callousness in bringing the boy so close infuriates him. Meanwhile, Alice once had a fling with Kurt, and she hopes to persuade him to take her away.

Strindberg’s expressionism is also on display in the production, in moments of hallucinatory horror (helped by effective lighting from Stacey Derosier, original music by Jeff Blumenkrantz, and sound by Quentin Chiappetta), as the disoriented Edgar succumbs to trances and staggers around the stage.

The captain holds out hope for an end to this toxic marriage: “If we can be patient,” he says, “death will come, and then, perhaps, life begins.” But the grim truth is that “the dance of death” is just another term for life itself.

The August Strindberg repertory productions of The Dance of Death and Mies Julie play through March 10 at Classic Stage Company (136 E. 13th St., between Third and Fourth Avenue). Performances are Wednesday through Sunday. For the repertory schedule, visit classicstage.org.

Click for print friendly PDF version of this blog post

Is It a Crime?

Director Whitney Aronson’s approach to August Strindberg’s rarely produced Crimes and Crimes is to streamline and bring out the dark comedy that the play encompasses. Her adaptation of the Swedish playwright’s work has been updated to present-day New York City. She has taken the attitude that the realism and harsh events that occur in the original version undermine the notion of it as a comedy. For her adaptation, she says in a note, she wanted the audience to see and understand Strindberg’s play. Aronson’s version begins with Jean (Ivette Dumeng) and her show dog Maid Marian (played by actress Katie Ostrowski), a Hungarian sheepdog, frolicking in the park, enjoying their time as they wait for Jean’s husband, Maurice (Randall Rodriguez). Emile, Jean’s brother, later joins them, and they discuss Jean’s concern that Maurice is planning to leave her. (Aronson doesn’t explain why these residents of New York should have French names.)

Ivette Dumeng (right) plays Jean and Kate Ostrowski is the dog Maid Marian in August Strindberg's "Crimes and Crimes." Photo by Jonathan Slaff. Top: Randall Rodriguez as Maurice with Christina Toth as Henriette. Photo by Remy.

Jean is afraid that she will not be able to afford Maid Marian’s dog show expenses if Maurice divorces her. Emile and Jean speak of how Maurice, an author, rarely takes her on his book tours or to social affairs. She tells Emile, “I don’t know, but I have a feeling that something dreadful is in store for me.” Suddenly Maurice appears and begins caressing Maid Marian, whom he clearly loves. He also gives the impression that he loves Jean and enjoys her company and physicality. In fact, he invites her to the opening of one of his plays and she refuses. She tells him she will be better at home with Maid Marian. They part ways, and the play begins to unfold the “something dreadful” that Jean fears.

Maurice goes off to meet and start an affair with Henriette (Christina Toth), who is in a lesbian relationship with his close friend (a man plays the friend in Strindberg’s original). The tension increases: Maurice must now decide if he stays with his wife or goes with his new lover. As he contemplates his decision and how difficult it would be to see Maid Marian if he divorces Jean, the dog mysteriously dies.

One of Aronson’s most radical changes to Strindberg’s original text is that Maid Marian is a replacement for the mistress’s daughter. She writes that she made this choice because she wanted the play to be more believable: “I actually did it because in the original, the child dies and nobody really cares.”

Although there’s a logic behind Aronson’s choice, it may not resonate with the same intensity as Strindberg’s. “I thought that the audience would not be able to forgive anyone in the play for so easily moving on from the death of a human child. A treasured animal’s death, though tragic and upsetting, is more consistent with the general reaction and behavior that Strindberg’s characters demonstrate.”

But even though the change from child to animal does lighten the mood and makes Maurice’s actions somewhat more forgivable, some of the plot stretches credibility. After the dog’s death, animal law enforcement appears to investigate the crime. As serious a crime as animal abuse is, it seems rather fantastical that a Broadway-type play would be pulled because of animal abuse. In any case, Maurice is charged as the main suspect, but he is eventually exonerated. Within hours of his release, Maurice’s reputation is ruined, and his play is pulled.

Whether the choice to change the daughter to a sheepdog is fully justified or not, it does not take away from the lightness of the play. It does, however, make the circumstance melodramatic and absurd, which brings out the humor in the play.

Matthew Hampton and Holly Albrach’s costuming of the characters is impeccable: fashionable and in line with the current New York scene. They employ an approach to the Hungarian sheepdog that seems to draw inspiration from puppet theater. It was entertaining and just simply delightful to the eye.

The sound design by Andy Evan Cohen makes the transition between scenes lively, using instrumentals of popular pop songs. They are played with a classical twist, so the audience is left to try and identify the familiar tune.

Aronson has accomplished her goal. The play has witty moments and comic scenes. The absurdism makes for great melodramatic humor as well. The revision keeps the audience focused on its entertaining and engaging story for the entire duration.

Crimes and Crimes plays through Aug. 20 at the Gene Frankel Theatre, 24 Bond St., in Manhattan. For tickets, call (212) 868-4444 or visit www.strindbergrep.com.

Click for print friendly PDF version of this blog post

Payment of Revenge

In this world, it seems everyone is indebted to someone for something; a job, a simple favor or an important introduction. The grateful understand this and are appreciative, often "paying it forward." However, not everyone who goes out of his or her way for another does so with a kind heart. Generosity of spirit may be misread, or at other times, the creditor plans to collect somewhere, sometime. The central theme of Creditors, written by Swedish playwright August Strindberg, weaves a demanding tale of love—controlling love and abandoned love—and, unfortunately, exacting revenge as when the creditor makes a well-planned and malicious visit. Creditors is currently playing at The Wild Project through Feb.14 and is presented by Phoenix Theatre Ensemble.

Through the filtered afternoon light of vertical blinds, disheveled artist Adolph (Josh Tyson), is fumbling with a new sculpture surrounded by finished and unfinished paintings. He is an accomplished artist who has driven himself to the edge of sanity and good health producing painting after painting, yet full of self-doubt and insecurity now toying with the idea of sculpture. His acquaintance, Gustav (Craig Smith), in an off-white summer suit and untied bow tie meanders the stage, replenishing his cocktail often. Goading Adolph in a familial manner, Smith embodies the part as an art dealer might, critiquing the work and then, just as easily, reverts to roll of doctor imparting medical diagnoses. He appears to know more than the casual friend often chiding the fragile Adolph, or at times, touching him intimately on the face. Eventually, Gustav maneuvers the conversation to Adolph’s wife Tekla, who has been away on a short holiday. Here is where Gustav frenetically whips up the dialogue to further lead Adolph down a rabbit hole of despair, teetering into the world of jealousy. It is clear that Adolph’s health and mental state are at risk.

Tekla (Elise Stone) brightly arrives after Gustav scurries off to secretly observe the interaction of the couple. In his fragile state, Adolph attempts to test her fidelity. Tekla, obviously older than her husband, desires to be adored and has no interest in sitting at home or being lectured about her flirtations. Stone’s voice is alluring even when her dialogue is burdened with childlike terms of endearment; she refers to them as "brother/sister." Tekla floats nervously across the stage in a diaphanous gown hoping to appease her husband as their disagreements intensify.

Woven throughout the dialogue is the reoccurring argument—who "made" whom. The older, educated Gustav used his position in a Pygmalion manner to bring language and style to her when she was young, a world she later abandoned. It appears as if Adolph picks up where Gustav left off. Adolph’s success as an artist may have allowed Tekla the time to write a successful book while introducing her to society but at what cost? Gustav’s students poked fun at him when they realize he was characterized in her book as a stupid fool. Anger, resentment and revenge have been fomenting—the creditor is demanding payment. Stone, Tyson and Smith deliver.

In 1888, Strindberg created a fast paced and uncomfortable, revenge-driven script in Creditors. (The current translation is by David Greig.) Kevin Confoy took complete advantage of the brisk dialogue with his direction by giving the actors the space to move about and the motivation behind the written words.

The set is a villa at the shore strewn with art and art supplies, an ample bar cart and a fainting couch. At the back of the stage hanging on a line are simple line drawings on paper. On either end of the drawings, the two stage entrances; one to the lobby of the villa and arriving ferry, while the other implies more rooms of the suite.

The entrances are lit with colors that change with a scene and during a scene. While emphasizing the mood of the dialogue, the lighting change is too noticeable at times. An interesting use of lighting is in the second scene where the bottom of the art, hanging at the rear of the stage, is lit in a razor’s edge blue underscoring an ugly undercurrent of the script. Credit for both set and lighting design goes to Tsubasa Kamei.

Although not an endearing play, Creditors is captivating and full of well-crafted characters. Stone brings the middle-aged woman not wanting to be considered old, and longing to be desired, to full breadth. The young, tortured artist and husband, who really does love his wife, is fully present in Tyson. Smith, the jilted, revengeful lover delivers a multi-faceted character to the stage through his frenetic action and vocal cadence. He easily transitions from devious to charming and almost caring as he exacts his final, gloating revenge.

Creditors is presented by Phoenix Theatre Ensemble and runs through Feb. 14 with a mix of evening and matinee performances at The Wild Project (195 East 3rd St. between Aves. A and B) in Manhattan. Tickets are $25 and can be purchased by calling 212-352-3101 or visiting http://www.thewildproject.com/performances/2016-CREDITORS.shtml.

Click for print friendly PDF version of this blog post