by Lynn on July 29, 2016

in The Passionate Playgoer

At the Studio Theatre, Shaw Festival, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont.

Written by August Strindberg
In a new version by Conor McPherson
Directed by Martha Henry
Designed by William Schmuck
Lighting by Louise Guinand
Original music and sound by James Smith
Cast: Landon Doak
Patrick Galligan
Jim Mezon
Fiona Reid

A play about marriage and games playing, lying and one-upmanship by a couple who are masters that affects everyone around them. A bracing production.

The Story. Edgar and Alice are about to celebrate their 25th wedding anniversary. By all accounts it’s been a rocky marriage. They live on an island in a former jail, in a port in Sweden. It’s 1900. Edgar is in the military and holds his meagre power dear while he reviews his troops. Most of his time is spent bickering and bellowing at his demur wife Alice.

They are visited by their friend Kurt. He was in an ugly divorce and lost the custody of his children. This has left him embittered. He has been away in America for years, apparently with a mistress. While he is friends with both Edgar and Alice, he is closer to Alice. They had an affair earlier in their lives. There are hints that perhaps Edgar might have known and gotten even by ensuring Kurt lost the custody of his children.

The Production. Designer William Schmuck has created a claustrophobic, prison-like world for Edgar and Alice. Not only are they on an island, isolated from the mainland, but they seems to be in a tower that is a former prison. The windows have vertical bars on them. A sentry walks back and forth outside the main room. One wonders if he is keeping the couple in or intruders out. One hears them and one visitor racing up and down many flights of stairs; more indication of their isolation. The space and furnishings are well appointed and comfortable. One would assume that since Edgar and Alice spend almost all their time up there together it would be comfortable.

They are an odd couple. Edgar is a military man, full of swagger and bombast and Jim Mezon brings out all that loud posturing in Edgar’s character. I must confess at times it seems Mezon is over the top in bellowing and one wants more variation. If Edgar bellows all the time one tends to stop listening. Mezon can and does change things up occasionally. One just wishes for more variation.

Alice often reminds us that she gave up her acting career to marry Edgar. You can see the actress in Alice as played by Fiona Reid, herself a consummate actress. She seems to toy with Edgar in the most delicate and coy way. She sashes around Edgar. She is demure. She is also steely and determined to make her shots in their constant bickering. The bickering makes one wonder how this couple stays together.

The emotional level rises when Kurt, a family friend arrives. As played by Patrick Galligan, Kurt is courtly, dashing, passionate and everything Edgar is not. It’s interesting to see how Alice plays off Kurt to get Edgar riled. It’s interesting to see how Alice plays him too. The dynamic of the three of them keeps shifting and changing in Martha Henry’s direction. One is also aware ever so subtly, that Alice and Edgar are constantly lying to each other. Each tells Kurt secrets from the past. One wonders, who is telling the truth?

Through it all, believe it or not, is the humour. The Dance of Death is a wickedly funny evening of a bickering couple, bringing up past faults, hurts both real and imagined; a marriage in trouble. Or is it? Could this be a game that Edgar and Alice play, and Kurt is just in the middle, an innocent dupe? Martha Henry keeps us sizing up each side and wondering.

Comment. August Strindberg was not a happy fellah and it certainly shows up in his plays. In her program note, Martha Henry suggests that perhaps he was bipolar. That would certainly explain a lot of the rollercoaster of emotions that hamper Edgar.

One also sees echoes of Strindberg certainly in Edward Albee’s classic work, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? about a bickering couple—George and Martha–who got great fun out of their troubled marriage by arguing and fighting. It was their sport and they were never better at it than when an unsuspecting couple is invited over for drinks. One gets the same sense of that fun and games when Kurt arrives, unsuspecting how this couple live and fight.

Conour McPherson’s contemporary new version adds a timelessness to the text, a certain modernity. One can imagine warring couples that stay together for the fun of the fight And the laughs, as Edgar and Alice do in this compelling production of The Dance of Death.

Presented by The Shaw Festival

Opened: July 23, 2016.
Closes: Sept. 10, 2016.
Cast: 4; 3 men, 1 woman
Running Time: 2 hours, 30 minutes.

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