Review: Strindberg's "Dance of Death, Parts I and II" Waltzes on the Grave of a Marriage

Dance of Death, Parts I and II

Written by August Strindberg

Translated and directed by Robert Greer

Theater for the New City presents the August Strindberg Repertory Theatre production of August Strindberg's Dance of Death, Parts I and II

155 First Ave., Manhattan, NYC

February 25-March 13, 2022

Natalie Menna, Brad Fryman, and Bryan James Hamilton. Photo by Jonathan Slaff.
August Strindberg (1849-1912), most associated outside of his native Sweden with his lasting impact on the modern stage, put his hand to a wide variety of artistic forms and approaches across the length of his extensive career. The characters in his Dance of Death, Parts I and II (1900), by contrast, are overwhelmingly trapped in a hostile stasis. Originally written as two plays, the August Strindberg Repertory Theatre's current production presents, for the first time in English, the two parts of Dance of Death together, in a new translation, which includes some minor trims, by director Robert Greer. As one might expect of Strindberg, there is plenty of unhappiness to go around for the play's two small family units, though, at the same time, the narrative is not reducible simply to unvarnished misery.

At the beginning of Part I, Edgar (Brad Fryman), a Captain, has been married to Alice (Natalie Menna) for two decades–the same number of years that she is his junior–and their love has long since curdled. The sniping pair is isolated not only by living on an island but also by having made enemies of more or less the entire community around them, and, perhaps worse, there are money troubles. Into this marital miasma enters Alice's cousin, Kurt (Bryan James Hamilton), whom Edgar and Alice have not seen for fifteen years, to take up a position as the island's Quarantine Master; and as Edgar shows signs of possible serious illness, Alice fixes on Kurt as the avatar of a potential alternate future. Alice's visions are complicated, however, when, not long after the interval, Edgar promises to change his ways, leaving plenty of time–and the introduction of Kurt's previously estranged son Allen (John Cencio Burgos) and Alice and Edgar's daughter Judith (Bailey Newman)--to see how well the change in this manipulative, controlling leopard's spots sticks.
Baily Newman and John Cencio Burgos. Photo by Jonathan Slaff.
Alice is a former stage actor (who by this time resents having left her career for her marriage), but Edgar's machinations also involve more than a touch of performance, raising questions around self-construction and presentation. One might see these questions as well in how Kurt in Part II repeatedly invokes his own resilience by saying that he has been through worse but has also proven himself rather changeable by that point. One might further include the dynamic between Allen and Judith, which seems at first to function something like a gender-swapped echo of Edgar and Alice's relationship, but within their relationship also arises the question of whether this younger generation can break from the mold set by the older. Even among that older generation, some element of love and defensible values mingles with the tragedy and interpersonal loathing.

Among strong performances all around, Menna is terrific as the embittered but not (entirely) cowed Alice, and Burgos brings sympathetic depth to the put-upon Allen in the production's second half, in which the energy increases alongside the stakes. The set design also creates an effective contrast between the gloomy residence of Edgar and Alice, where we spend our time before the intermission, and Kurt's brighter, more contemporary residence, the location of the latter portion of the production and the target of Edgar's arguably petty jealousy. For a compelling take on a classic work, fans of Strindberg should reserve a space on their dance cards for Dance of Death, Parts I and II.

-John R. Ziegler and Leah Richards

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