Richard Topol and Cassie Beck
photos by Joan Marcus
by Deirdre Donovan
Madman? Genius? The Swedish-writer August Strindberg was all of these, and
then some. Born on January 22, 1849 on the islet of Riddarholmen in Stockholm, Strindberg became—in the admiring words of Eugene O’Neil—the “most modern of
moderns” when it came to interpreting the spiritual conflicts of human beings
shadow is now haunting the boards of the Classic Stage Company (CSC) in two
adaptations of his classics: Yael Farber’s Mies Julie and Conor
McPherson’s version of The Dance of Death, running in repertory through
Dance of Death, a couple—a retired military captain Edgar and a former
actress Alice-- are on the cusp of their silver wedding anniversary. But
instead of sweetly reminiscing about their 25 years of wedlock, they are
formally interring their marriage before our eyes. And their instruments of
torture? Words, words, words. Yes, they both excel at spewing razor-sharp
insults at each other as they ride a merry-go-round of hatefulness that never
Innvar and Cassie Beck
spite of being 119 years-old, The Dance of Death still has astonishing
good skin tone under the direction of Victoria Clark. Clark, who is best-known
for her Tony Award winning performance in Light in the Piazza, is slowly
gaining a toehold on the other side of the footlights.
to my press materials, Clark nearly “fell off her chair” when CSC’s Artistic
Director John Doyle namedropped Strindberg to her as a directorial project
(most of her theatrical ventures have been in musicals). But no worries. Clark
lands on her theatrical feet here by mining the music within Strindberg’s
play. Take the scene when Alice plays on an invisible piano for her ailing
husband Edgar and we hear her chord progressions swell into Johan Halvorsen’s Dance
of the Boyars. Who said you need a real piano in a play to create
incidental music? Clark subscribes to the less-is-more philosophy, and it
production is bolstered by the excellent acting of the cast. Richard Topol
plays Edgar with a droll humor and a curmudgeonly temperament. His Edgar is
arrogant, devious, sharp-tongued as a serpent—and unmistakably dying.
at first blush, Cassie Beck seemed miscast for her role, she grabs hold of it
just fine as the scenes progress, conveying the enflamed resentment of a woman
who gave up her acting career for a man who shortly would shrug at her beauty
Innvar, as the newly-appointed quarantine master, is pitch-perfect. He is an
old friend who introduced Edgar to his Alice 25 years ago. On this visit,
however, he will learn from his cousin Alice that Edgar was responsible for his
divorce and then persuaded the court to award custody of his children to his
ex-wife. Yes, many secrets are uncovered here and old wounds ripped open.
creative team make splendid use of the small performing space at CSC’s Lynn F.
Angelson Theater. David L. Arsenault’s set and Stacey Derosier’s lighting
conjure up the claustrophobic atmosphere of the tower (it was once a jail) that
Edgar and Alice call home. Tricia Barsamian period costumes are right on the
money, whether it’s Alice’s turn-of-the-century dress or Edgar’s military
uniform, replete with riding boots that he almost never takes off.
the 2001 Broadway production starring Ian McKellan and Helen Mirren had more
sweep and grandeur, this current CSC iteration allows one to experience the
play in a more intimate space and watch up-close the growing irritation between
Edgar and Alice.
himself, in fact, wrote his Dance of Death as a chamber piece, and
fittingly gave it its Swedish premiere at his own Intimate Theatre. Indeed,
this CSC production seems to be in the same line. And it surely packs a big
Farber’s reworking of Strindberg’s Miss Julie changes the setting
and implications of the classic drama. Mies Julie takes place in a
farmhouse kitchen in the Karoo of South Africa on the eve of the Freedom Day
celebration in 2012. Julie, the white Afrikaans landowner’s daughter, harbors
a long-time love for her father’s charming Xhosa farmworker, John, and when she
finally seduces him, a Pandora’s Box instantly seems to open.
imagination goes wild. Could she be pregnant from their erotic evening
together? Could she and John perhaps elope before her father returns home?
Perhaps for the first time in her life, she profoundly senses that what’s done
cannot be undone.
Kibler, Patrice Johnson Chevannes, James Udom
Ali directs this piece with a knowing hand. The Kenya-born artist lived in South
Africa before immigrating to the United States in 2013. So she brings a
wealth of personal experience to Mies Julie. In my press materials, it
notes that Ali began the project with a question that scratches beneath the
surface of the present-day political situation in South Africa. Or as she
succinctly puts it: “10, 15, years after Nelson Mandela was freed, was South Africa truly a liberated space?”
a question that falls heavy on the ears—and has no facile answer. It also begs
another question: Does this play have global significance? In a word, yes.
Ali, in fact, dares U.S. viewers “to pull from this [Farber’s] work. . .
similarities and resonances with our current state of the U.S.”
some fine—and sizzling--ensemble acting here. The title role is played with
ferocity by Elise Kibler. When it comes to sexual adventure, her Julie is a
moth to the flame, a bad girl who sees too late that her rebellious nature can
Udom, as the Xhosa farmworker John, looks and performs his part with a
confident swagger and cool demeanor. Udom’s John is savvy to the society in
which he lives; however, he’s still a young man who feels passion racing
through his blood and eventually succumbs to Julie’s bold sexual advances.
the supporting role of Christine, Patrice Johnson Chevannes is the soul of
righteousness as John’s mother and the devoted Xhosa domestic servant. She
senses the tragedy brewing between her son and Julie (Christine raised her from
birth) even before the play’s close—but is unable to prevent it.
let’s not forget Vinie Burrow who inhabits the other-worldly ancestor Ukhokho.
Burrow’s Ukhokho hovers on the periphery of the action for the majority of
scenes. But her presence is always felt, and when she crosses the stage at
crucial moments, one can sense the ephemeral nature of human life.
production values underscore the play’s bleak atmosphere and mood. Arsenault’s
set, abetted by Derosier’s lighting, is the living image of a real 19th
century kitchen in South Africa: a grimy stove, plain kitchen table, and all
its homely accoutrements. Ntokozo Fuzunina Kunene and Andrew Moerdyk’s
traditional costume design looks as authentic as anything featured in a National
Geographic story about Mzantsi (the colloquial name for South Africa).
play first surfaced in New York at St. Ann’s Warehouse in November 2012 and was
directed by the playwright himself. While that production truly heated up the
boards in Brooklyn, this new staging is just as steamy with Kibler and Udom
performing the two passionate central characters. No question that Mies
Julie is meant for adult audiences. Farber’s reimagining of Strindberg’s
1888 drama about love—and social taboos--will raise the temperature of even the
most seasoned theatergoer.
double dose of Strindberg at the CSC may well be the best tonic to those who
are weary of the splashy over-sized musicals and sentimental plays that have
surfaced this season and sugar-coat human nature. When it comes to plays that
have the look and feel of real-life, these Strindberg dramas are second to
none. And when it comes to emerging directors, Clark and Ali are clearly worth
following. One can only wonder what project is next for these gifted artists.
Classic Stage Company, 136 East 13th Street, Manhattan
more information, phone 212-677-4210 or visit www. www.classicstage.org
time of Dance of Death: 1 hour; 55 minutes with no intermission
time of Mies Julie: 75 minutes with no intermission