Reviewing Theatre For Over 40 Years
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Long before Edward Albee’s portrait of a manipulative, wretched, psychologically sadistic marriage in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” there was August Strindberg. A man whose view of matrimony can be gleaned from the 19th century playwright’s four unsuccessful marriages, Strindberg examined the twists and turns of relationship in several works, but never created a more mutually vicious version than that in “The Dance of Death.”
Now opened as the third leg of their three-play fall repertory, the production of this work at A Noise Within in Pasadena creates an equally stunning portrait of deeply psychological marital dysfunction, laid out in front of a guest who finds himself gradually swept up in the grimly manipulative human interactions there. A new translation by Conor McPherson, receiving its west coast premiere, brings this play out of the somewhat dated tonalities often associated with “classic” works into a contemporary language framework which makes the play both more accessible and more disturbing.
Co-Artistic Directors Geoff Elliott and Julia Rodriguez-Elliott direct this one “straight”, allowing the ferocity and isolation of the characters’ worlds to create movement without the unnecessary embellishments which sometime cloud their productions. The result is stark but continually interesting. Like watching a train-wreck, you just can’t look away from these two as they destroy the world around them. Even for the third character onstage, and certainly for us out there in the dark, that the point.
Elliott is Edgar, an aging misanthrope whose self-absorption and sloth have kept him a low ranking army officer assigned to a bleak island outpost. He has no friends, no money, possibly no food, but vibrates with a strangely concocted dignity nonetheless. Susan Angelo is Edgar’s wife of nearly 25 years, Alice. A former actress yearning for the life she could have led, she mourns absent children and concocts plots to overthrow her husband.
Into this world comes Alice’s cousin Kurt, played by Eric Curtis Johnson. An earnest man of significant rank, he has demons of his own to deal with, but soon falls into the clutches of these relatives who devour his finer sensitivities over the course of the play’s two hours.
Angelo and Elliott prove a fine match, with energy levels and intensities so similar the whole piece becomes an unpredictable fencing bout. Likewise Johnson provides an interesting counterbalance to all that ferocity, and proves subtle in his changes from compassion to an increasing loss of veneer. Indeed, this may be the most difficult part in the play – to change while those around you essentially do not.
Angela Balogh Calin has created an interesting set – at once solid and see-through. It makes for unique symbolism, but removes some of what would seem to be elemental claustrophobia implied in the script. Her costume designs, on the other hand, quickly and accurately evoke the needed elements of attitude, class and title, like visual shorthand.
“The Dance of Death” provides a fascinating character study, and – as with Albee’s later play – considerable meat for discussion. Its view of marriage as a death match, and its dismissal of the collateral damage are disturbingly timeless, making it surprising the play isn’t done more often. Perhaps this new translation will help change that, so that like “Miss Julie,” this Strindberg work becomes a part of the canon.
In the meantime, though not for the faint of heart, “The Dance with Death” is well worth seeing. Just don’t expect something Halloween-y. Sadly, its Poe-esque name has already led to some misconceptions in that department.
What: “The Dance of Death” When: in repertory with “The Tempest” and “The Importance of Being Earnest,” 8 p.m. October 24, 25, 31, and November 15; 7:30 p.m. October 30; 7 p.m. November 9 and 23; 2 p.m. October 25, November 15 and November 23 Where: A Noise Within, 3352 E. Foothill Blvd. in Pasadena How Much: $40 general, $20 student rush with ID, group rates available Info: (626) 356-3100, ex 1 or http://www.anoisewithin.org