**** (out of five)
Reviewed by James Karas
The Dance of Death is a series of variations on the theme of spousal hatred. August Strindberg was no stranger to marital acrimony and he did not have to go too far from his home when he wrote the play that premiered in 1900. Martha Henry directs the play for the Shaw Festival with powerful performances by Jim Mezon, Fiona Reid and Patrick Galligan.
Edgar (Jim Mezon) is an army captain in charge of a fortress on an island near a port in Sweden. His wife Alice (Fiona Reid) is a former actress and the two are about to “celebrate” their silver wedding anniversary. Perched above the sea, the fortress is in fact a former prison but it is the perfect living quarters metaphorically and realistically for the warring couple which are isolated from the rest of the community and are left with only a Sentry (Landon Doak) walking silently back and forth outside their residence.
Jim Mezon as Edgar, Patrick Galligan as Kurt and Fiona Reid as Alice. Photo by David Cooper.
Mezon with his shaven pate, generous size and thundering voice gives us a powerful Edgar. The power may be more apparent than real because Edgar has some health issues including poor eyesight, excessive use of alcohol and collapsing fits. He admits to nothing and his booming voice brooks no argument.
Fiona Reid’s Alice is no pushover. Her hatred of Edgar is a powerful as his for her and she wants revenge and elimination of him. She engineers his arrest and incarceration but is unsuccessful He attempted to kill her but failed. He chases her around with a sword, makes a shambles of their apartment and as if by divine contempt, they cannot get rid of each other. Fiona Reid excels in comic roles with splendid intonations, physical moves and hilarious pauses. Here we see her in a dramatic role that she handles superbly.
The catalyst for some of the more egregious explosions of marital loathing is the arrival of Alice’s cousin Kurt (Patrick Galligan). He is a quarantine master sent to open a quarantine station on the island. Edgar hates him and wants to destroy him directly and indirectly by affecting his son’s future. Kurt has some experience in spousal combat. A court ordered him to have no communication with his some fifteen years ago.
Galligan’s Kurt can stand his ground against Edgar and he goes many steps further with his attraction to Alice. The two express great passion for each other and plan to get rid of Edgar. This is not a comedy and as you may suspect they do not succeed.
The only other character in the play is the silent Sentry who walks back and forth in the first half without any sign of weariness but who limps during the second half.
The play profits from playwright Conor McPherson’s translation and syncopation. He gets rid of the minor characters of the maid Jenny and the Old Man and provides a colloquial language that is not stilted or awkward. The natural flow of the dialogue works exceptionally well in moving along the plot of a play that has very little plot.
Jim Mezon as Edgar, Fiona Reid as Alice and Patrick Galligan as Kurt in The Dance of Death. Photo by David Cooper
The set by William Schmuck gives the impression of an apartment above the harbor that still seems claustrophobic and indeed prison-like. Going down to the harbor requires descending numerous steps and Martha Henry makes sure we hear the loud footsteps when the characters go down or come up the stairs.
The dance of Death is not always easy to bring off but Martha Henry with an excellent cast and a superb version of the play by Conor McPherson succeeds in bringing the Strindbergian war into a fine evening at the theatre.
The Dance of Death by August Strindberg in a version by Conor McPherson runs until September 10, 2016 at the Studio Theater, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario, www.shawfest.com/