Dance of Death

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Photo by Steve DiBartolomeo

 By Philip Pearce

A 1960s CLASSIC called Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf taught us that there’s nothing quite as dramatically exciting as a dysfunctional marriage. Sixty years earlier a Swedish playwright named August Strindberg had already discovered that truth. His play The Dance of Death centers on the cutthroat domestic battling of a pair of stage monsters who could be templates for Albee’s terrifying George and Martha.

Jewel Theatre Company, just voted the best of its kind in Santa Cruz, last week opened a sharp and fascinating updated version of Strindberg’s stormy drama and it’s a winner. The updating is the work of Conor McPherson, author of The Weir, Shining City and The Seafarer. It cuts the original script’s subordinate characters to home in on married couple Edgar and Alice and their visiting cousin Kurt, who briefly suggests a possible way out of their marital hell.

McPherson’s version tends to see the devious and vicious twists of plot as dark comedy, not, as heretofore, pieces of domestic tragedy. An able cast and the imaginative direction of director/scenic designer William Peters give the Jewel production that wry lighter touch and it works brilliantly for most of the performance.

Edgar is a strutting and bombastic military egoist stationed on an island military base. Self-absorbed, delusional and obsessively devious, he has cut off all social contact with his military subordinates. He dismisses them as “scum,” yet avidly scans their activities through binoculars as he paces the battlement terrace of the converted army prison he shares with his wife Alice. Rolf Saxon is a perfect choice for the role. His face, a lined oval of suffering apprehension, suggests the stress of keeping up the tireless swagger and bouncy pretense of being an isolated Byronic superman.

Wife Alice is having none of the phony bombast. She has never forgiven Edgar for scooping her out of an acting career she is convinced was heading her straight for stardom. As unsympathetic as he is demanding, he has cut away all her outside relationships and keeps her an emotional prisoner in their stone-walled tower. Julie James creates an embittered, sharp-tongued Alice, sometimes brooding, more often raging at her husband’s refusal to release her by divorce or, even better, by dying.

And death seems always to be waiting in the wings for Edgar. He suffers from attacks of arteriosclerosis, which the sardonic Alice calls “hardening of the heart.” Saxon is nowhere better than in the moments of awkward physical comedy that break unexpectedly into his pompous bouts of self-congratulation. Halfway through a soaring pronouncement he nosedives to the floor. James’s total indifference to these seizures is just as funny. Hiking her unconscious spouse onto a chaise in order to avoid tripping over him, she ignores his plight and crackles on with indignant tirades, especially after cousin Kurt checks in for a visit.

As Kurt, Stephen Muterspaugh starts out firm, direct and straightforward, a center of plain spoken stability in the prevailing chaos. But he is gradually sucked into the trap of these two warring psychoses. Edgar subtly makes him an object of ridicule. Alice seizes on him as a possible ally in her battle against Edgar and even as a new on-the-scene sex object.

At a high point of Act 1 Edgar shows Kurt his skill in the regimental saber dance, a brilliantly choreographed and hilariously executed pattern of twists, kicks and foot stomps. The wild unpredictability of these maneuvers suggests Edgar’s devious ways and hints that you’d better not trust everything you see or hear in the twists and curves of this startling play.

In Strindberg’s original, Alice accompanies Edgar’s dance from the keyboard of her piano. In McPherson’s updated script she downloads the music from her iPhone and the change works well enough. Other plot points are more awkwardly made with the pared-down cast. Before Kurt arrives, Edgar and Alice are confronted by the departure of their disgruntled cook/housemaid. But this entire crisis begins, happens and ends unconvincingly over a household intercom and the maid’s walk-out is accomplished via a note slipped under the terrace door.

With the emphasis in Act 1 on Edgar, Alice becomes the dominant character in Act 2 and here the lighter touch imposed by the new version doesn’t work as well as it might. James is exciting and effective while Alice transforms herself into a sly and sexy reincarnation of her glory days in the theater in an effort to seduce Kurt. But this sequence climaxes in an event that should be as telling a picture of Alice as the saber dance is of Edgar. It’s the famous moment when she forces the bemused Kurt to kneel before her, crawl forward on his belly and kiss her booted foot. Not a pretty piece of comedy, it’s something that surely calls for an unabashed dive back into the full melodrama of the original script. Instead, Peters and the actors block and play it as a kind of brief, passing unpleasantness. The result tends to tilt the action in a way that makes Alice the continuing victim of Edgar’s power, rather than a monster as ruthless in her way as her dying spouse is in his.

Which is not to say I don’t like the overall dark comic approach. It’s truer to the final moments of the play. There have been repeated and increasingly dire melodramatic crisis points, yes. But because Edgar is a liar and Alice is out of touch with the ways of their army base, those high-flown acts of revenge all drift away like dead air escaping from a leaky inner tube. Alice and Edgar are left to clean up the mess of their latest skirmishing and to accept the sad truth: they can only exist by riding the depths and shoals of their mutual hatred.

Quite a play. A worthy production. It continues through April 9th at the Colligan Theater in Santa Cruz.