Shows Worth Seeing:
The Dance of Death
By August Strindberg
Lucille Lortel Theatre
121 Christopher St.
Box office: (212) 352-3101
The Dance of Death is one of those dramatic classics (King Lear and Medea are others) that really shouldn’t be produced without the right larger-than-life actors in the leading roles. Strindberg’s play is the ultimate statement on “extreme marriage” from modern literature’s original wacko-husband. Notwithstanding his paranoia and reputation for misogyny, this author had a lot to say about marriage that applies to normal people, but he typically said it through monumental exaggeration. The couple at the center of Dance of Death are prodigies of theatrical enlargement, titans and forces of nature as much as specific people with particularized backgrounds. Edgar and Alice treat marriage, and life in general, as a bizarre theatrical game, a deadly serious hoax in which everyone around them is deliberately victimized by their need to amuse themselves by stirring up cruel conflicts. It’s marriage as funhouse-bunker.
Edgar and Alice can’t be satisfactorily played as mere egotists, arrogant eccentrics with some sort of histrionic personality quirk. As the 1969 film with Laurence Olivier and Geraldine McEwan masterfully showed, the play’s resonance comes across only with performers whose histrionics read as bone-deep. The actors have to make you believe that the very pith of life for them resides in spleen, bombast and manipulativeness, and Laila Robins is one of the only American actresses I know of who could possibly pull this off. With her towering height, wide, alluring mouth, expansive gestures, and deep, insinuating voice, she is a formidable, momentous presence even when not speaking. The full psychological embodiment of her role is where she starts from in this Red Bull Theatre production directed by Joseph Hardy. One feels that Robins’s Alice could swallow lesser beings whole if she weren’t so busy fighting passionately and inventively with Edgar.
Watching her perform beside Daniel Davis, whose Edgar is perfectly convincing as an arrogant blowhard, and Derek Smith, also perfectly adequate as Alice’s cousin Gustav, a mortal victimized by the couple’s sick histrionic games, it occurred to me that Robins really ought to perform Edgar. If formidable actresses like Ruth Maleczech and Marianne Hoppe can play Lear, why not a woman as Edgar? That would put a neat new twist in the perennial discussions of Strindberg’s sexual politics. It might also help blow some dust off this play, which is feeling a bit creaky of late, even in this smoothly colloquial adaptation by Mike Poulton. In any case, whatever her role, Robins’s aura is not to be missed in Strindberg. She was born to perform him.