Role Playing: Shannon Cochran found partners aplenty in sardonic, twice-told ‘Dance of Death’
Interview: Portraying a woman isolated in a loveless marriage, actress gained insight from playwright Strindberg, adaptor Conor McPherson, director and fellow players at Writers Theatre. Through Aug. 3.
By Lawrence B. Johnson
In working out her transfixing performance in the harrowing pas de trois that is August Strindberg’s “The Dance of Death,” now on the boards at Writers Theatre, actress Shannon Cochran says she got an indirect boost from Irish playwright Conor McPherson, who created the new English-language adaptation at hand.
McPherson came to Writers’ little bookstore black box theater in Glencoe to observe rehearsals and chew over ideas with director Henry Wishcamper and his cast of three: Larry Yando as Edgar, a curmudgeonly old officer in an island battery command just off the coast of Sweden; Cochran as his wife Alice, a desperately unhappy woman, younger than Edgar, once a great beauty and still striking in her middle years; and Philip Earl Johnson as her cousin Kurt, a recent arrival on the island to fill the civilian post of quarantine officer.
To occupy empty days and nights, Edgar and Alice play cards and bicker, often viciously. They are essentially friendless and can’t even keep kitchen help. Money is scarce though Edgar pretends to be well provided. Indeed, home is a meagerly reconditioned prison cell. Their life has devolved into a slow waltz toward nothingness.
“You can’t have this discussion without McPherson,” says Cochran. “He turned this thing on its ear. In his view, Edgar is in a comedy but Alice is in a great struggle for her life. At first, I thought it was all about the wild games they play with one another, but their situation is really quite dark and miserable. These are two of the most disappointed people you’ll ever meet.
“That’s a universal, isn’t it? So many people living with just general disappointment. What Conor did was to put Alice in a mode that would allow her to keep this up as a game, to endure that way. When Kurt shows up, he looks like Alice’s escape route. She believes she would be better off ending this misery and find a way to get out. That’s where the play turns away from comedy.”
On the first day of rehearsal, McPherson met with director and cast via Skype from his home in London. Then, as the production began to take shape, he came in for a week.
“It was amazing,” says Cochran. “He was very reticent to characterize any of these three people. In the beginning he didn’t want to say anything. He had seen only one other production, and as he began to see me work, he said, ‘You’re showing me what I have here.’ Well, that could have been overwhelming to hear. But it wasn’t. It was freeing. His own idea was unfinished, and I just went with my instincts.
“That’s the way I always work. Larry and Phil Johnson are different. They both like to say, ‘Here’s what I’m feeling, what I want to do. They just talk and talk and talk. I just do it and see what feels right, see if anybody responds. Conor was always respectful and careful about inserting his own ideas. He and Henry were like a directing team. Honestly, I was often dumbstruck. Henry is the most deft director I’ve ever worked with in terms of fully empowering actors and guiding them without their knowing it.”
Likening Alice to Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler, Cochran notes that in this turn of the 20th-century culture, no woman could have escaped Alice’s plight. Divorce was out of the question: “There was no real escape unless some man provides it for her.”
And Alice is significantly younger than Edgar. “Strindberg and McPherson wanted to peel back some layers on her sexuality. She’s not old like he is. She still has certain desires. For a woman to say that in this time is incredible.
“The trickiest point is the moment in the play when Alice breaks from normal acrimony and gamesmanship and petty squabbling, and flips into another gear. She makes up her mind to leave – now, this week. Things were promised to her that did not transpire. In this incredibly modern way, she decides that instead of occupying the place of all women, she is going to take her life back, and she will go to whatever length to do it.
“The concept of annihilation gets born. Conor used that word. To contemplate doing that to someone is terrifying.”
“You can’t help bringing your own feelings to your character. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve never lost my enjoyment of men, especially younger men. I think they’re delicious. All my friends know this about me. Alice seems like that, constantly dreaming of the old days. I don’t think she deludes herself into believing she’s still a young beauty. But when Kurt responds to her, some pilot light gets lit and she preys upon him.
“Kurt is a guy who has this well of life and she wants to suck that life. It turns out to be less romantic than she expected. It’s a completely visceral life-force she’s after, even if she lies and tells herself it’s the archetype of desire.”
If it’s animalistic lust between Alice and Kurt, her engagement with cantankerous husband Edgar is edgy, bitter, dark and very funny.
“I think of Larry as a supreme comedian. He’s just chemically funny,” says Cochran. “I take my cues from him. What we share is a microscopic love of text. ‘Why is this a period instead of an exclamation mark?’ We sit around pondering those things. I suppose it’s masturbation on some level, but it’s also a real devotion to text.”
The darkly churning comedy fomented by Strindberg via McPherson fills a compact acting space in which the audience virtually breathes in rhythm with the players.
“I’m frightened to death of that space. But it’s also magical. I once did (Noel Coward’s) ‘Private Lives’ there. You can never do comedy without considering the audience, and in this play you can hear the audience make involuntary sounds – sighing, gasping, groaning. You can feel it. It’s good for an actor to work that way. It helps you stay honest, stay invested.
“I can say today, seriously, this is a painful, pointless joke,” replies Cochran. “It is theater of the absurd, and everybody can connect with something absurd in their life. These characters are like three children, with childlike logic, perception and need. A child doesn’t have an existential view of anything. Alice doesn’t have an inner life, so she’s living moment to moment. That’s what Henry asked for the first time we got together.”
- Review of ‘The Dance of Death’: Read it at ChicagoOntheAisle.com
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