Review: “The Dance of Death”

RECOMMENDED

Where: Writers Theatre, Books on Vernon, 664 Vernon Ave., Glencoe
When: through Aug. 3
Tickets: $35-$70
Phone: 847-242-6000

The three characters in August Strindberg’s 1900 “The Dance of Death” are nasty pieces of work—and that’s putting it mildly. Factor in the new version by Irish playwright Conor McPherson, Henry Wishcamper’s direction, a trio of Chicago’s most intense actors, and the claustrophobic space at the back of Books on Vernon, and seeing Writers Theatre’s American premiere is like spending two-plus hours in hell with hateful people who positively relish tearing each other apart.

In fact, the aging Edgar (Larry Yando) and Alice (Shannon Cochran) may already be dead and in hell, or at least they say so several times. Approaching their silver wedding anniversary, or the 25th anniversary of the “big mistake” as she calls it, they’re cooped up in the old prison they call home on a lonely Swedish island where Edgar is a military officer. But he’s an alcoholic loose cannon who has alienated everyone, from his fellow officers to the servants, not to mention his unseen children. Alice, 15 years his junior, resents giving up her acting career to marry him, and while he drunkenly berates and bellows, she matches him insult for insult and engages in subtler manipulations.

The arrival of Alice’s cousin Kurt (Phillip Earl Johnson) at first promises to bring some calm and a truce, but that quickly proves not to the the case. Besides having introduced Edgar and Alice in the first place, he has a troubled and troubling history with each of them that erupts to the point of bloodshed. And if Alice’s relationship with Edgar is abusive, the sexual perversity she and Kurt share is downright sick. But, ultimately, he realizes he’s in over his head and just a pawn in their games, so he beats a hasty retreat, leaving them to an exhausted lull before they just go on.

Flashes of black humor and shades of the supernatural permeate this adaptation, though it’s hard to know whether Strindberg or McPherson is responsible. Wishcamper’s direction adds a restless, frustrated quality, so the actors never quite seem to be connecting. Yando’s raspy yelling as Edgar makes him about the most irritating person in the world to be around, but in a brilliant bit of acting, it’s often at odds with the sad expression in his eyes or the maliciously gleeful little smile when he thinks he has the upper hand. He also goes completely blank at times, as if he’s having a mini stroke. Cochran’s Alice plays it closer to the vest, only gradually letting the vengeful vixen emerge from the veneer of wronged womanhood, but tempering that with what comes across as genuine concern when Edgar collapses, revealing vestiges of the love that binds them together along with the hate. Johnson has Kurt’s weakness down pat, so that his outbursts are truly shocking.

Kudos go to Kevin Depinet for creating an impeccably detailed set complete with gas lights, windows that rattle in the storm, and a telegraph machine that’s the only source of news from the outside world. Lighting designer Keith Parham, sound designer Josh Schmidt, and properties designer Julie Eberhardt also deserve credit, and Rachel Laritz’s costumes—especially for Cochran—are top drawer.

According to the program notes, McPherson adapted only the first part of “The Dance of Death.” The second part features the children, who are much talked about here, and is supposedly more hopeful. It could hardly be less so!