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Beate Hein Bennett

Life…A Seriocomic Farce

Dance of Death, Parts 1 & 2
by August Strindberg

March 2 to March 13, 2022
Theater for the New City (Cino Theater), 155 First Avenue (at E.10th Street)
Presented by Theater for the New City and the Strindberg Rep
Wed – Sat. 7:30 PM, Sundays at 3 PM.
Gen. Adm. $18, Students and seniors, $12
Box Office (212) 254-1109, www.theaterforthenewcity.net
Reviewed by Beate Hein Bennett March 3, 2022

Natalie Menna, Brad Fryman and Bryan James Hamilton.

August Strindberg’s “Dance of Death”(1901) was “choreographed by Friedrich Dürrenmatt” into “Play Strindberg”(1968), trimmed down from both parts into a seriocomic boxing match of twelve “rounds.” Robert Greer, the Artistic Director of the Strindberg Rep, translated, has cut and compounded both parts into a compact downward spiral of mutual destruction. Nothing of the “dance” is left, and the farce lacks the harsh laughter. It is a grim exhibition of reciprocal distrust masked in a cloak of intimate familiarity—the feints and stabs are predictably and relentlessly delivered with little apparent joy.

In reading the 1960 translation by Elisabeth Sprigge of both parts, and comparing it with Mr. Greer’s 2022 condensed translation/adaptation for this production which he also directed, I was surprised to see none of the more nuanced elements of the Strindberg text in his production. The relationships among the characters are relentlessly raw: Edgar, the Captain and Alice, his wife, have been married for 25 years; Kurt, the cousin visits after 15 years of absence; in Part 2 young Judith, daughter of Alice and the Captain, and Allen, the young estranged son of Kurt develop an awkward love affair. The whole play takes place in a fortress, a former prison, on an isolated island, a site for quarantine.

Strindberg’s reputation as a misogynist whose female characters are equated with vampires is, to my mind, not entirely justified. If one reads his texts carefully, one finds even in “The Dance of Death” that he dishes out the source of human misery equally between both sexes. His misanthropy is generic but, as has been pointed out by Ms. Sprigge and Mr. Dürrenmatt, a director would do well to apply Ionesco’s lens on life and play his text with a good dose of grotesque humor.

Robert Greer treated the text with great seriousness and emphasized the lacerating tone of the text—he kept a tight grip on the relentless process. The main players in the ensemble are two regulars with the Strindberg Rep: Natalie Menna as Alice and Brad Fryman as Edgar, the Captain. They have experience playing Strindberg couples and are quite attuned to each other.

Brad Fryman gives a powerful differentiated portrayal of the Captain. His glimmers of dark humor spark the exchange between the aging/dying husband and his wife, twenty years his junior. However, Natalie Menna’s portrayal limits Alice by making her into a harridan driven by proud resentment. The missing part in her love/hate relationship is the vestige of the love that she did feel for him at one point and the pity that has taken its place. Strindberg saw marriage as a vice-grip between love and hate, a contract not made in heaven but in hell where both suffer equally.

Kurt, Alice’s cousin and childhood playmate, enters the play as the disturbing element; he becomes the catalyst that propels the action into the final rounds of competing interests. Bryan James Hamilton cannot quite find his way through the miasma of this marriage. He also seems hampered by having to keep on a hat although he is in the couple’s sitting room. It’s an unsuitable stylistic quirk: he hides his long hair pulled into a topknot under the hat.

John Cencio Burgos and Bailey Newman.

In part 2, the two 20-year young characters are played by Bailey Newman, a fresh exuberant vixen Judith who seduces Allen, played by John Cencio Burgos as a timid but conscientious burgeoning officer. Their relationship shows already the beginnings of the poisonous competition in dominance. (She teases him at one point to lie face down on the floor and kiss her foot—and he obeys!) Bailey Newman is like a switchblade in her sharp-tongued delivery mixed with sudden flights of romantic fancy. Mr. Burgos almost parodies the young man lost in the hot-cold showers of emotions, as he vacillates between his obligations to duty and love.

The stage space is divided into two sections, one for each part. Stage left is the sitting room with simple rattan furniture, a settee, two chairs, a couple of round coffee tables, in the background the “bar” for the drinks, and towards upstage center a desk with the telegraph and a free standing barometer. Stage right is the space for part 2; the furniture is covered with white sheets during part 1. Stage devised by Mark Marcante with props by Lytza Colon. The lighting is designed by Alexander Bartenieff with a touch of purplish color that spills onto the main seating/playing area in part 1 creating a subtle surreal feel. In part 2, stage right is bathed in a cold gleam that lights up the final cruelty each inflicts on the other. In the original text, “The Entry March of the Boyars” (1893), a rousing piece of music by Norwegian composer Johan Halvorsen (1893) and loved by the Captain, is a recurring leitmotif that Alice plays on the piano; in this production Ms. Menna mimes playing indifferently on the covered keyboard of an upright piano. (Actual playing would give the actress an added dimension of emotional expression.) The off-stage sound is designed by Roy T. Chang.

Since Strindberg is rarely performed these days, a trip to Theater for the New City is worth a re-acquaintance with this modern classic of intimate psychological probing into the banality of marital strife.


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