by August Strindberg
Directed by Martha Henry
At the Studio Theatre. July 23-September 10, 2016
The Dance of Death is a caricature of tragedy, which does not mean, however, that it is a cartoon. Alas, Martha Henry’s production treats it like a broad, wild farce, with two central performances that run the gamut from staggering exaggeration to scampering salon comedy. The staggering comes chiefly from Jim Mezon, whose sour Captain Edgar often seems to rerun some of his worst vocal and physical mannerisms from other roles, while the scampering comes courtesy of Fiona Reid as his tormented and tormenting wife, Alice, who seems to have Feydeau’s boudoir comedies in mind. Strindberg meant his piece to be darkly comic, verging on the tragic. The long-married couple, nearing their twenty-fifth anniversary, indulge in almost incessant rituals of domestic duelling, as they waste away in a prison-like enclosure of an old stone island fortress (designed by William Schmuck). Theirs is a cruel, vindictive battle of the sexes (inspired by Strindberg’s own life experience), but there is much rancid comedy in the battle of a type that was to inspire O’Neill, Sartre, Ionesco, Beckett, and Albee. Call it absurd, if you will, in the philosophic sense, but the play also ingests nightmarish horror—something that this production never reaches.
The garrison Captain is physically debilitated, an acutely near-sighted heavy drinker, a pathological abuser of men and women, and a stingy liar. His wife is a former actress (therefore, a more skilfull liar) who had given up her career for him. Two of the couple’s four children have died, and the other two live away from the bitter parents. Cynical insult follows insult with battering force and frequency in Connor McPherson’s new translation. Into their whirling vortex of almost hysterical derangement steps Kurt (Patrick Galligan), the Quarantine Officer and Alice’s cousin, returning after fifteen years abroad, divorced and robbed of his children. He is a man both sinned against and sinning—as his relationship with Alice shows—and though he is sensuous and well meaning, he is also an erotic vampire, or, at least, shows traces of this dire condition, though Galligan and Reid don’t have any special chemistry together, and their sex scenes are rather tame.
Surely the point of this play is a danse macabre, a ritual that the couple has been used to playing for years, and one that encapsulates their death-in-life. Influenced by Zola, Darwin, and Swedenborg, Strindberg was a forerunner of German Expressionism, and there are palpably grotesque elements in this play. In other words, the predominant style is realism, with more than passing nods to Absurdism and even the phantasmagoric. Henry’s production lacks height and depth. It is loud, frenetic, broadly comic, and neither Mezon nor Reid comes close to full portraiture. Mezon is merely a slob as the Captain, staggering around from start to finish, executing some of the most ungraceful, unfunny movements in uniform when he performs a rankly amateurish version of a Boyar dance. He has a loud, battering voice, which is good for the loud, battering passages of dialogue, but he is never touching, never capable of ambiguity. Reid is better, of course, at comedy, but comedy is all she seems to have at her fingertips in this woeful production and nothing more. The attempts at Expressionism seem to be reserved for Louise Guinand’s lighting (mauve or purple or green background washes) and James Smith’s sound design with loud offstage stomping down and up stairs. Oh, and there is the young sentry who marches ceremoniously in the background. He ages and acquires an acute, chronic limp in the second act, without explanation. That must be symbolically linked to the paranoia or destruction in the central story. Or is he simply exhausted and crippled by the production itself that left many on the opening night in a semi-coma?