Dance of Death by August Strindberg, adapted by Richard Greenberg. Directed by Sean Mathias. Set and costume design by Santo Loquasto. Lighting design by Natasha Katz. Original music and sound design by Dan Moses Schreier. Cast: Ian McKellen, Helen Mirren, David Strathairn, Anne Pitoniak, Keira Naughton, Eric Martin Brown.
August Strindberg has a well deserved reputation for having written unremittingly bleak plays, the strongest element in which is an almost pathological fear and hatred of women. Richard Greenberg’s new version of Strindberg’s one hundred year old Dance of Death, which opened last night at the Broadhurst Theatre, tends to even things out a bit, making both of the main characters - Edgar, an army captain, and Alice, his wife of a quarter century - as appalling and reprehensible as possible. Any actor worth his salt will tell you it’s much more fun and rewarding to play a villain, and here we have two rather good actors having at it, chewing the scenery for all they’re worth in an astonishing display of human nature turned sour. In fact, you may leave the theatre feeling as if the actors had a better time and much more fun than you did.
Traditionally the problem with Strindberg’s plays in performance is that there are just enough funny lines amid all the despair to keep you thinking the play is going to get better. Sometimes they do (Miss Julie) and sometimes not (Ghost Sonata.) In this new version, Richard Greenberg has successfully upped the funny quotient without sacrificing any of the angry, nasty, and just plain mean behavior of the characters, while judiciously editing out the bits which would only tend to confuse a modern audience. The result isn’t a laff-fest by any means. But, it does keep your attention exactly where it needs to be in this production, on the performers.
Both Ian McKellen (Edgar) and Helen Mirren (Alice) are heir to that great English acting tradition wherein the most important word in each speech is carefully and artfully stressed. Misapplied, this technique can result in unintentionally horrid performances. Used in a confident and subtle manner, as it is here by McKellen and Mirren, and deployed with the wisdom of experience and a bit of period style, it can elevate a performance to near perfection.
This Dance of Death isn’t perfect. It drags a little here and there and one wishes at times the director, Sean Mathias, had reigned-in the performances. However, thanks to Mathias, it is a good and workmanlike production with larger than life performances by McKellen and Mirren, which is much better than no McKellen and Mirren at all.
David Strathairn (in the supporting role of Alice’s cousin Kurt) gives a reliable if comparatively understated performance, the necessary touchstone to everything else going on.
The set and costume designs by Santo Loquasto are interesting without being intrusive, and much helped by the atmospheric lighting design of Natasha Katz.