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Theatre in Review: The Dance of Death/Mies Julie (Classic Stage Company)

Top: Christopher Innvar, Cassie Beck, Richard Topol. Bottom: Elise Kibler, James Udom. Photos: Joan Marcus.

You get your choice of August Strindberg in this pairing: straight, no chaser, or remixed; each comes with a strong whiff of brimstone. Conor McPherson's version of The Dance of Death is, essentially, Strindberg's original, although in slightly digested form, while Yael Farber's adaptation of Mies Julie is transplanted into the bitter soil of post-apartheid South Africa. Each production benefits from a director with a vivid, gripping vision and a cast willing to burrow deep into dark psychological corners; together, they make a compelling case for plays that often come across as creaky fulminations by a great writer compromised by his misogyny. Victoria Clark's staging of The Dance of Death, Strindberg's bilious view of marriage as an extreme sport, bubbles with acid comedy. In Shariffa Ali's high-tension production, Mies Julie, a psychosexual drama with a dash of class conflict, is given a new orientation, tracking the ugly consequences of a sexual encounter whose participants are scarred by the legacy of racism.

At the beginning of Clark's production, Cassie Beck and Richard Topol, as the malevolently married Alice and Edgar, enter, circle each other, and, their arms locked, engage in a kind of waltz, bursting into laughter. It's a most apt image: Alice and Edgar are rather like the dancing figures atop a vintage music box -- except, instead of elegantly circling each other, they tear each other to shreds, giggling madly. Holed up on a remote island where Edgar, a military officer, has his command, they are friendless, estranged from their children, and unable to hold on to servants. Money is running out, the future holds little hope, and their only comfort -- enjoyment, even -- lies in the next round of psychological warfare.

McPherson's version draws its bitter humor from characters who aren't afraid to bare the bald facts of their claustrophobic marital antagonism. When Edgar notes that their silver anniversary is nigh and a celebration might be called for, Alice replies, "I thought we might show more decorum by keeping our long, miserable mistake to ourselves." Imagining a tasty dinner of mackerel and white wine, Edgar says that with such a treat, "one doesn't feel quite like blowing one's brains out anymore, does one?" "You're asking the wrong person," snaps Alice. When news comes of the arrival of Alice's cousin, Kurt, who first brought them together, Edgar marvels, "You think he'd come all this way just to witness the dregs of his handiwork?"

Under Clark's spirited direction, every drop of this cyanide-laced cocktail delivers an appalling kick. Sweeping around in a series of elegantly fitted gowns designed by Tricia Barsamian -- their varied colors providing a reliable index to her inner state -- Beck's Alice treats Edgar like an excrescence that should be removed with dispatch. This is, of course, when she isn't lounging on the chaise, eaten up with boredom and frustration; standing next to a portrait of her youthful self, striking an identical pose to impress a visitor, or, trying to seduce Kurt, entering into an embrace that rouses him to a vampiric neck bite and causes her to scream in terror.

Beck has an equally satanic playmate in Richard Topol, whose Edgar is a ruin-in-progress: His sparse tufts of hair are scattered in every direction, as if he had just received an electric shock; he trudges around in an exhausted, lead-footed manner, the veteran of one too many long marches; and, at times, he slips into disoriented states. (Hearing that his doctor has diagnosed him as suffering from "calcification of the heart," he murmurs, "Calcifi-what-tion?" "A stone heart, dear," murmurs Alice, helpfully.) A few minutes later, however, he reobtains a frightening vigor, confirming to an aghast Kurt that he did in fact once push Alice into the sea. "It just seemed so natural," he says. "There she was. And the angle seemed just perfect!"

Kurt, in contrast, is drawn with many fewer colors: The victim of a ghastly divorce that has permanently separated him from his children -- Strindberg's dim view of marriage is all-encompassing -- he is mostly a toy for these malicious cats to bat around. Nevertheless, Christopher Innvar, nattily turned out -- in contrast to the decaying Edgar -- brings some humanity to the character even as he slips into a whirlpool of seductions, deceptions, and blackmail threats. He also proves to be a first-class straight man. Caught staring in horror as Alice, hurling insults and howling like an animal, drives Edgar out of the room, he is told nonchalantly, "This is nothing." In response, he earns one of the evening's bigger laughs, saying, "You know, the reason I came here was I thought how peaceful it would be!"

The Dance of Death is a canonical work, but not an entirely satisfying one. (CSC is presenting the first part of the two-part drama; no one ever seems to do the full piece.) Strindberg's point seems to be that marriage is an endless round of offensive actions, and he is interested solely in tracing the outlines of each new sortie. The action is left to chase its own tail, with no possible resolution, and Alice and Edgar are allowed to have at each other for a little too long, before Kurt appears and gets the drama going. Also, McPherson's generally speakable version occasionally falls prey to contemporary locutions like "I've been asked to drop in on the doctor's big bash" or "shut your stupid face."

Still, David L. Arsenault's drawing room setting -- with the audience on four sides -- is appropriately populated with worn and mismatched furniture. Stacey Derosier's lighting modulates subtly with each shift in the characters' power balance; in one especially gripping effect, Edgar, lost in a dream state, wanders around, his monstrous shadow reflected on the wall opposite. Quentin Chiappetta's sound design provides fine reinforcement for Jeff Blumenkrantz's original music, along with such effects as the sinister tap-tap-tap of a telegraph, bearing bad news from the mainland.

And there's plenty of wicked amusement in the way Beck, Innvar, and Topol turn their characters' intrigue into vaudeville. "We were separated -- for five years," recalls Alice. "And you reunited?" Kurt asks, astounded. "The mistake we made was that, while we were separated, we both continued to live here," Alice explains, as if this were the most reasonable thing in the world. Rarely has The Dance of Death's status as the spiritual ancestor to Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? been more apparent.

In contrast, the tormented lovers of Mies Julie give in to an infatuation that has the gravest of repercussions. In Strindberg's original, the title character -- in some translations, she is known as Countess Julie -- flouts Victorian sexual and class taboos by giving herself to Jean, a valet. This was strong stuff in 1889, even if it ends badly for all involved. Time has dimmed its impact a bit, however, and I've seen productions that played like bad romance fiction. Various writers have tried to recapture its power by placing the action in new time frames and contexts. After Mies Julie, seen on Broadway in 2009, moves the characters to an English country house on the eve of the Labour Party landslide in 1945, a gambit that enjoyed limited success.

Farber has gone one step further by relocating the play to the Karoo region of South Africa, which will be familiar to fans of Athol Fugard's plays. The time is Freedom Day 2012, and an offstage party celebrates the end of apartheid. But as the script makes devastatingly clear, the old rules of engagement still hold. (As Ali noted in a recent interview, in South Africa "since 1994, people still live like they're in a pre-civil rights era.") Farber's version is still loaded with neuroticism and sexual game-playing; this is obvious from the moment that Elise Kibler, as an Afrikaner Julie, enters in a dress the color of dried blood -- nice work by the costume designers, Ntokozo Fuzunina Kunene and Andrew Moerdyk -- and, leaning back on the kitchen table, displays herself to the servant, John, and his mother, Christine. But the world they inhabit is twisted by decades of oppression. The estate lands are overrun by squatters, causing Julie's father to turn off the heat and water in an attempt at driving them away. And the kitchen floor is built over an ancient tree, beneath which are buried Christine and John's ancestors; the roots keep cracking through, a powerful reminder of the past that holds these characters hostage, forcing them to enact old hatreds in the midst of lustful encounters.

Indeed, the conditions of Julie and John's lives seem to dictate their attraction and its most toxic qualities. Julie's unseen father is a brute, her mother a depressive who committed suicide; Julie has just been dumped by her fiancé, whom John secretly witnessed forcing himself on her. Watching Julie from a distance is nothing new to him. He grew up as the "clever kaffir," brought up to play with Julie and her visiting cousins, but more often to be abused by them. He shares a vivid memory of being urinated on by one of them while Julie looked on, laughing. This is fertile ground for a sadomasochistic relationship: One minute, Julie is demanding that John kiss her foot; a little later, he is taking her on the kitchen table. Not long after that, she is begging him to hurt her. And later, she is hatching a plan for them to run off together. Listening to him recalling his youthful suicide attempt, inspired by his desire for her, she says, "You loved me? Or you just hated yourself?" "Same thing," he replies.

Just as Alice and Edgar, in The Dance of Death, can't escape each other, Julie and John can't be together, a fact that only fuels their lust and drives them to degradation. There are the faintest of hints that, had their souls not been warped by self-hatred and social repression, they might have been able to find happiness together; as it happens, there is only one possible resolution -- and, as with Julie's mother, Christine will be left to clean the blood off the floor.

If Ali's taut direction never slackens across the seventy-five-minute running time, her production also benefits from the steamy pairing of Kibler and James Udom, as John. In addition to sharing a palpable chemistry, the two frankly and without awkwardness enact graphic scenes of sexual intimacy; they also chart the tectonic shifts between them with the accuracy of seismometers. Kibler's Julie comes on strong, like a practiced seductress, but she can be intimidated into a frightened-little-girl persona that may be her truest self. Udom's John at first deftly deflects her, intent on avoiding trouble, then savagely takes charge, and later spirals down into a well of shame and self-hatred; having longed for her across the years, he is disgusted to find that having her provides little satisfaction.

Arsenault's rundown kitchen set, which suggests that the estate has seen better days, is again persuasively lit by Derosier with an eye to the troubled characters' complex emotional states. Chiappetta's sound delivers such effects as nearby revelers along with reinforcement for Andrew Orkin's African-style music. Patrice Johnson Chevannes brings tremendous dignity to Christine, who knows where all this is headed yet is powerless to stop it. The great Vinie Burrows wanders through from time to time, an unsettling presence as an emissary of the long-gone ancestors who still haunt the place.

Obviously, neither of these productions is ideal for a Valentine's Day date night later this week, but both find the live electric currents in these difficult works. Strindberg is stripped of his occasional blowhard qualities, yet his scalding social viewpoint remains, distilled and all the more powerful for it. This is the best argument in some time for the continuing relevance of his plays. -- David Barbour

(11 February 2019)

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