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‘The Dance of Death’ at Writers: Wedded war rages in old Sweden; fresh look at Strindberg

Submitted by on Apr 12, 2014 – 4:35 pm

Kurt (Philip Earl Johnson) questions Alice (Shannon Cochran) about her tumultuous marriage. (Michael Brosilow) Review: “The Dance of Death” by August Strindberg, adapted by Conor McPherson, at Writers Theatre extended through Aug. 3. ★★★★★

By Lawrence B. Johnson

If you liked Edward Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?,” you’ll love the original: August Strindberg’s “The Dance of Death,” wherein a toxic, blood-sport marriage between a venomous old soldier and his hissing wife make the sniping between Albee’s George and Martha feel once more present in the room. Writers Theatre provides the well-polished dance floor for Strindberg’s caustic waltz. 

Edgar (Larry Yando) makes his point with a sword as his wife (Shannon Cochran) freezes. (Michael Brosilow)Edgar, a nasty sixtysomething of wizened aspect, is a miserable man, an officer in an island battery command just off the coast of Sweden. For 25 years he has shared his delusions of accomplishment and his meager life – home is a modestly improved prison cell – with Alice, who is perhaps 15 years younger, a woman of enduring natural beauty, a real vixen in her prime but now just a bitterly unhappy soul.

The couple fills empty days and nights with card games and acerbic squabbling. Sometimes she plays the piano, though Edgar doesn’t always approve. They have no friends in the military compound. They can’t keep kitchen help. They have very little money, though Edgar talks as if they do. Each deadly day repeats the last. Then, like a gift from the gods, Alice’s cousin Kurt shows up at their door, newly arrived on the island to take up the civilian post of quarantine officer.

Pity poor Alice. Pity even the nefarious Edgar if you will. But it’s Kurt, an earnest man with a clouded past, who needs real compassion. Kurt is unfortunately rational. He enters this scene believing that if A plus B produces C, then D and E should follow. But this household operates by its own peculiar logic, and appearances have only an incidental connection to reality. In short, Kurt has never played in a game like this one with Edgar and Alice.

Alice (Shannon Cochran) describes her miserable life to Kurt (Philip Earl Johnson). (Michael Brosilow)Writers’ mesmerizing treatment of Strindberg’s theatrical blitzkrieg represents an aggregate of strengths, starting with the U.S. premiere of a new English-language adaptation by the Irish playwright Conor McPherson – whose own remarkable canon includes the likes of “The Seafarer,” “Dublin Carol” and “Port Authority,” the last potently staged at Writers earlier this season. McPherson charges “The Dance of Death” with his characteristically precise language and taut linearity, quite an achievement for a work of such careening energy and shifting impetus.

McPherson also understands the dramatic value of rest, of silence, what in musical terms would be the spaces between the notes. He has an ear for irony and in his take on Strindberg, the high rolling waves of spitefulness give off a soaking spray of bleak hilarity. Credit for sustaining the tension and eliciting the laughs goes as well to director Henry Wishcamper – and to three actors who go for it tooth and nail; indeed, in one amazing instance, teeth and neck.

It's a pas de trois for Kurt (Philip Earl Johnson, left), Edgar (Larry Yando) and Alice (Shannon Cochran). (Michael Brosilow)Larry Yando’s imperious, needling, boozy old soldier is a study in anti-heroism. It’s also a performance of surprising range. In many senses, Yando’s curmudgeonly Edgar ebbs and flows, rises and falls, attacks and retreats, swells and deflates. He even manages a sort of crippled jig. Yet, for all the abuse he heaps on Alice (and then on Kurt), this weathered reprobate is also a kidder. He kids himself most of all.

If we perceive Yando’s vicious predator as the enemy, we also want to embrace Alice as the protagonist, the helpless one caught up in eternal years of hardship, oppression and sorrow. But Shannon Cochran’s agile, calculating, icy Alice swiftly blows that bias out of the water. She’s a demon worthy of Yando’s Edgar, capable of upping the ante of malevolence any time her scheming mate thinks he’s got the better of her.

It is Alice who draws Kurt into the depths of this domestic swamp – as ally, savior, lover. And Philip Earl Johnson is wonderful as a straight shooter who tries to remain above the fray but ultimately can’t resist Alice’s direct advances. (It’s Agee’s Martha and the new faculty stud Nick back in merry old Sweden, circa 1900.) Kurt is something of a beach ball that Alice and Edgar swat around until, well – poof.

Writers’ tiny bookstore venue is just the right size for the warring couple’s prison apartment, sparingly decorated by set designer Kevin Depinet. This superb team effort extends as well to Rachel Laritz’s costumes, Keith Parham’s lighting and Josh Schmidt’s stormy sea sounds. “The Dance of Death” is a sardonic scorcher. Emblazon it on on your must-see list.

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In a peaceful moment, Kurt (Philip Earl Johnson) tries to comfort the stricken Edgar (Larry Yando). (Michael Brosilow)


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