August Strindberg had an (in)famously torturous relationship with women, and he is often thought of as one of theatre history’s great misogynists. Certainly, his portrayal of women in some of his naturalist plays – as in, for example, his rather meanspirited portrait of the haughty and hysterical aristocratic Julie in Miss Julie – accord with records, in his diaries, of his own experience of women as a source of sexual and psychological torment. But his works can also be read (perhaps only in retrospect) as evidence of his insight into the ways in which traditional gender roles impacted relations between the sexes and – in particular – created the conditions for terribly unhappy marriages.
This is certainly the case with his compelling, ahead-of-its-time, and infrequently produced Dance of Death (which he wrote in 1900). The story here is of Edgar (Sam Tsoutsouvas), a military captain stationed on a remote island, and Alice (Helena Ruoti), his wife of twenty-five years. When she was still young and attractive, Alice gave up what she believed was a thriving career as an actress to marry Edgar, and she holds that sacrifice – as well as their social and geographic isolation – against him. He, for his part, is a misanthropist who considers himself superior to everyone else (including his wife). Their relationship has been a long-running game of cat and mouse, each constantly maneuvering to be the cat instead of the mouse. As in the Tom and Jerry cartoon that comparison may conjure, Edgar and Alice are also utterly dependent on one another: their endlessly looping battle – punctuated by moments of tenderness and concern – gives their lives structure and meaning. When Alice’s cousin (and former lover) Kurt (Mark D. Staley) is stationed on the island as the garrison’s new quarantine officer, he sparks desires and jealousies that dangerously raise the stakes of their battle.
You’d be correct if you are thinking right now that this sounds a lot like the setup and subject of Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Albee was undoubtedly influenced by Strindberg’s exploration of the psychological complexity of married life when he wrote that play, and Conor McPherson’s excellent translation makes the comparison between Albee and his predecessor readily apparent. The language here is sharp and direct, shifting from bleak despair to dry humor in a manner that feels extremely contemporary and fresh. And while we can see some of Strindberg’s much-vaunted misogynism in his characterization of Alice – she can be a bit of a strident harpy, she’s duplicitous, and she uses her sexual allure to try to ensnare Kurt – it is also clear that the play is interested in revealing how deeply trapped all three characters are by Victorian sexual morality and gender roles. Imprisoned by their marriage (quite literally – their home is a former military prison!), Alice and Edgar are like caged animals, ready to attack any perceived weakness in the other, but also terrified of being left to endure captivity on their own.
The detritus of past grievances that haunt this couple is metaphorized in Narelle Sissons’ set, which surrounds the audience with what feels like several attics full of assorted furniture and antiquated objects strewn and hung and piled about, much of it shrouded in plastic that glows in Cindy Limauro’s haunting lighting design. Audience seating, which surrounds the small living room in which the action plays out, is hard to distinguish from the furniture in the set, giving the impression that we are guests who have been invited in, only to be awkwardly subjected to witnessing this private war. Director Andrew Paul has made a smart choice in staging this play in such intimate proximity to the audience: any greater distance and it would be too easy for the action’s heat to dissipate before it reaches the audience. Attired in Julianne D’Errico’s beautiful period-specific costumes, which tellingly signal the class and status difference between the aging, downwardly mobile Edgar and the younger and much higher status Kurt, Tsoutsouvas, Ruoti, and Staley do a marvelous job of generating that heat, and their handling of the characters’ contradictory and unpredictable shifts in emotion and state of mind is adroit and spellbinding.