The Classic Shakespeare Company is presenting two 19th century plays by August Strindberg in Repertory. The Dance of Death (see my review by “clicking here” in a new version by the award winning Conor McPherson) and Mies Julie in an adaptation by the award winning South African director and playwright Yaël Farber.
Farber has given Strindberg’s Miss Julie a renovation in texture, location, structure and dynamic by intensifying the conflict and shortening the arc of the play’s development. Inherent in this production directed by Shariffa Ali is the force and power to further elucidate the themes about classism, chauvinism, oppression, economic injustice, racism, white supremacy and cyclical revenge with the backdrop of a new setting, South Africa, 2012. Additionally. she has changed the characterization of Christine from Jean’s fiancee to John’s mother, and worldly servant Jean to Xhosa farm worker John, intriguingly characterizing him as one who grew up with Mies Julie on the farm that Julie’s father owns.
Christine has raised Mies Julie alongside her own son when Julie’s mother abandoned her daughter suffering from severe depression. The mother, alienated and isolated from the strangeness of the colonial women with whom she never could feel comfortable, the difficulty of the farming life and her own inner regrets caved in her soul. Without any sense of purpose or the obligation of duty to take care of her own child, she shoots herself and little Julie finds the disastrous ruin of the woman. Mies Julie thinks she is responsible for her mother’s death, but is nurtured by Christine’s love to eventually recover.
Nevertheless, Mies Julie bears the scars of the trauma. And during the course of the play we intuit that her rebellious behavior and impulsiveness suppresses an inner pain as she careens through her life. If not for Christiane’s love and an emotional attachment to Christine’s son John, who protects her and secretly, hopelessly loves her, Mies Julie might follow in her mother’s footsteps. The character of Mies Julie is most similar to Strindberg’s Miss Julie in ethos, however, the fascinating twists of transformation of setting reshape all of her actions and give them additional resonance and thematic richness.
Farber’s adaptation opens in a farmhouse kitchen in Eastern Cape, Karoo, South Africa on Freedom Day, 27 of April 2012, almost 20 years after all South Africans were give the right to vote in 1994. The day is a vital symbol integral to the complex themes of this adaptation. For the blacks of South Africa, the price of freedom was purchased by blood and suffering. The black culture’s redemption and return to the land of their ancestors will also be paid for by blood and suffering in a twisted karmic resolution in Farber’s Mies Julie.
Indeed, ancestors in the form of a ghostly grandmother seek revenge as she haunts the house which was built upon ancestral graves. Although this is not effected in the set design, Christine refers to the great tree which was cut down to make way for the house, but whose roots retained life and now break through the tiles of the floor of the kitchen and continue to grow in defiance of the white, man-made structure. The symbolism of the tree as representational of the Xhosa family which belongs on the land and whose culture can never be erased is a focal point. Unfortunately, without evidence of the tree breaking through the floor (due to the repertory’s need for minimalism) an important theme of Farber’s work is diminished, opaquely realized through Christine’s dialogue which becomes too easily lost in the hum of action.
Farber presents the underlying conflict when the workers on the farm and some squatters who have returned to the land that their ancestors lived on before the colonials came, have been celebrating and dancing on Freedom Day. Mies Julie dances with the workers a bold and inappropriate act. Because her father is away, she rebelliously revels in these liberties which lower her stature and respect in the workers’ eyes. When John attempts to admonish her, we see the emotional tensions between them and realize that the relationship they have developed in many ways runs past master/servant and portends elements of love or sado-masochism or both.
During the course of the production we discover that the South African’s hope is to one day take back the land from the colonials like Julie’s father. They consider this an act of restitution for the terrible bloodshed and misery caused in the years of usurpation which brought about cultural devastation. The economic struggles continue in the present day for the workers like John and Christine must still submit to servitude to survive. Decades of economic injustice and inequality have delayed their accumulation of enough capital to purchase the land that their ancestors lived on centuries ago.
Though John has educated himself and wants the freedom to be able to prosper beyond his “class and race,” he is not the urbane, world traveler of the Jean of Strindberg’s work. And though he has had women, he has loved Mies Julie from childhood. It is this night that erupts in a culmination of many subterranean wants and desires for both Mies Julie and for John. And of course it is this night of freedom that lifts up Mies Julie’s “Afrikaaner race” out from under the degradation and debasement of oppressing the Xhosa.
John and Julie are representative of their race and class. On one level Mies Julie becomes the sacrifice to expiate the “sins” of her forefathers when she chooses to become equal and unite in a physical consummation of love with John. Likewise for John, it is a night where he asserts his privilege to repossess the land (symbolized by Mies Julie’s body) and achieve a lifelong dream to be restored to his true sense of self-worth, identity and power.
The beauty and tragedy of portraying their relationship as Farber does in layer upon layer of intricate psychological and social texture is that we understand before the characters do that perhaps decades need to pass before the destructive social MATRIX in which both live and have their being disintegrates. John comes to this realization sooner than Mies Julie, who is impaled on the immediacy and unreality of wanting an idyllic life with John away from the farm. She intends to run away with him and use her father’s money that she’s stolen from the safe. John cannot trust Mies Julie enough to leave his mother and the stultifying but familiar identity that has oppressed him his entire life. The two are trapped and their end appears to be an inevitability. The time is surely “out of joint.” And only a few options remain for them to take before Julie’s father returns the next day and stasis consumes their lives once more.
In this adaption, Farber presents some of Strindberg’s themes front and center and then embellishes and expands them. Farber suggests the following. In order for the injustices between and among economic classes to ever be resolved, the classes themselves must be dissolved. For all human beings, the trials overcoming the miseries of childhood and the nullifying stricture of social mores, are uneasily won. For outsiders who are economically challenged, the trials are even greater. Only gradually through the passing of the generations will there ever be economic and social parity between and among disparate races and ethnic groups.
Christine knows this. She treasures her job and is willing to abide in her faith believing that for her son’s generation it will be better, but for her generation, it is finished. John wants change immediately and by fathering Mies Julie’s child he will overthrow the status quo, though he risks her father’s wrath. They must leave, for if a baby comes, her father will kill them both.
The harder he and Julie attempt to extricate themselves from the binding circumstances, the more they become mired in fear. It is a truism that they must leave or die. They cannot forge new identities in the same place where old hatreds and resentments float like ghosts above the blood-soaked land. Mies Julie wisely commands that they run away from her father and the farm’s oppression and migrate to a new identity and new existence in the city. But John is stuck. Christine adjures that she will never leave the farm. John must choose. Either he abandons his mother and goes with Mies Julie to freedom, or he remains with Christine in servitude. If there is a baby, all three will die.
Farber’s adaptation presented by the CSC and directed by Shariffa Ali enthralls with strong, emotional performances by James Udon as John, Elise Kibler as Mies Julie and Patrice Johnson-Chavannes as Christine. And when the ghost of the grandmother walks the kitchen, Vinnie Burrows is uncanny and foreboding. Because of her presence, we understand that a fearful retribution is coming, but it remains unclear until the play’s conclusion.
The production runs like a bullet train on a collusion course toward destruction especially in the scenes where Kibler and Udon spar, seek to dominate and control, then relent, succumbing to their tenuous love for each other. Kibler is effective in her smoldering, wild longing. Udon is sensitive and caring as the “fool” for love, then angry and rebellious in believing he is Mies Julie’s plaything. These emotions provide a field for incredible contrasts. On the one hand Julie and John collide with their fear of abandonment and betrayal. Then they fly to each other then fly to reinforce a love perches on the edge of desperation. These tensions and the heightened interplay between Kibler’s Mies Julie and Udon’s John is wrought with ferocious zeal.
A note of warning. Some of the dialect and the accents are muffled and strained. I found that swaths of dialogue were garbled because of an overemphasis to “get the accents right.” I am not referring to the words of Afrikaans or Indigenous words in Xhosa, but the heavily accented English. The accents are vital for they introduce the setting. However, the use remained problematic. When the emotion was presented organically, the dialogue followed and the actors were easily understood.
Finally, the set design was spare and adequate as it should be in this repertory Strindberg cycle. However, the incredible symbolism of the tree should be included as an important thematic thread of the play. The music, the effects, make-up and costumes are apt. When the ghostly presence enters and leaves, all these design elements effect the supernatural wonderfully.
Mies Julie and The Dance of Death alternate in repertory at CSC (13th Street between 3rd and 4th) until 10 March. Mies Julie is a spare 75 minutes with no intermission. You can pick up tickets at their website.
Historically, marriage has been an economic arrangement. It will continue to be so for the upper classes who understand the necessity of securing their financial legacy for posterity. Emotions of love and caring might be a by-product, but they have been secondary considerations for the wealthy who remain keen-eyed and empirical when it comes to their fortunes. However, the middle class prompted by myth and fairy tale, believed and still believes in love and marriage, stoked by romantic films, songs and lucrative cultural artifices that reinforce the notion that marriage is an imperative for the straight as well as the LGBTQ set. Cultural consumerism pivots on romance and everything in between to culminate in the big white event. When government involvement and the legal system enforced marriage as an entrenched cultural institution with privileges and prohibitions, for good or ill, everyone was impacted and still are.
Marriage folkways and the idea that the ubiquitous institution brings comfort and joy to the bonded couple is turned humorously on its head by August Strindberg (1849-1912) in The Dance of Death. Strindberg’s play at times may be difficult to balance in its tenors between tragedy and comedy. Conor McPherson has transformed it into the most hysterical of blackest comedies about what may be for some, the bleakest of social arrangements in his new version which currently runs at CSC in an August Strindberg repertory (Mies Julie, The Dance of Death). McPherson, an award winning playwright is noted for such superb works as Shining City, The Seafarer, and most recently, Girl From the North Country.
McPherson easily leaps into and out of the precipices and crevices of irony, sarcasm and sardonic interplay in this new version. Many of McPherson’s works produce uncanny grotesques that meld fear, surprise and humor and always engage, startle and most assuredly enthrall. What he has accomplished with Strindberg’s The Dance of Death is the best of McPherson.
In this new version the extraordinary relationship of bondage, fear, familiarity, loathing, quasi affection and sometime tolerance between Edgar (a Captain in the military) and Alice (a former stage actress) plays off Strindberg’s characterizations of the married couple. However, in McPherson’s iteration, the dialogue skips along in a rendering that is crisp and bold. The pace and clarity of the character and situation creates a dynamic that facilitates the humor and flat out comical brutality of husband Edgar (Rich Topol) as he jousts, using sword wit and hyperbole, with wife Alice (Cassie Beck) who as a formidable opponent dodges and wounds him with his every thrust.
The play takes place on an isolated island in a converted fortress that once housed condemned prisoners. The island surrounded by little other than the military regiment housing and social life related to a few high-placed neighbors. During the course of a few evenings, we discover the boundaries of this couple and what they fancy. Edgar is an unsuccessful skinflint who is barely able to perform his military duties as an older man in his 60s. As Edgar Topol reveals his incredible versatility, flexibility and vitality as he negotiates Edgar’s infirmities and attempts to dance, defying the illness that would swamp Edgar and remove all the luxuries and pleasantries of life, for example alcohol, a cigar, women. Topol’s ironic delivery is pitched for humor directed to deride and deliver underhanded insults at Alice. His performance is masterful.
Cassie Beck as Alice stomps down Edgar’s attempts with well-paced, clear, clipped delivery that is modulated for its utmost sardonic injury to Edgar’s ego. She transfers moods and graces with immediacy and vitality most producing audience laughter. Topol’s Edgar and Beck’s Alice are each other’s match and as the play progresses we note that their seething hate graduates to finer and fiercer levels as they insult, then bait and switch to more excoriating repartee. They are in earnest and desperate which makes the situation even more comical, for they are not playing for humor, they are clawing to get out of prison and wounding their jailer at every turn.
With the shepherding of the incisive and able director Victoria Clark, the actors reveal their characters and display them in full. We completely understand by the end of the play that Edgar’s and Alice’s seriously humorous, witty invective has been fined-tuned over their twenty-five years of marriage into an incredible waltz that appears more like a Fandago, a courtship dance that is anything but. The irony is that we realize these two devils have somehow worked out and in a perverse and sadistic/masochistic way configured the dance steps which no one watching except for themselves revel in and enjoy.
Ah! Edgar and Alice embody the pleasures/ horrors of being married to someone they despise, yet are too embroiled in knowing familiarity to consider either killing or leaving. This indeed, as McPherson/Strindberg shoves into our laughing faces suits the marriage vows,” ’til death do them part.” The problem is that though Edgar is old, and Alice is 15 years his junior, Edgar totters between mini seizures, black-outs, obstreperous dying-ins, visions of an old woman who may or may not symbolize death that no one sees but him, and energetic dancing which he vigorously enjoys, then collapses to, yet, Edgar doesn’t die. For her part, Alice repeatedly announces in bell-like tones her wish for him to die, her relish in having him die. And that she will be thrilled if he hurries up and does it. How monstrous! How funny! How can we laugh? Well, indeed, how can we? These two maul each other with finesse which because of McPherson’s ear for language manages to be damn hysterical.
When Edgar’s “friend”/Alice’s cousin Kurt (the most excellent, equally riveting Christopher Innvar) enters into the fray, he too becomes bloodied. It has been a hiatus of 15 years since he’s seen the devilish couple,. During that estrangement he obtained money but went through incredible personal trials which he weathered, the circumstance of which we learn as he is brought into their “fold.” The mysteries of affairs (Kurt’s wife was intimate with Edgar and Alice was intimate with Kurt) are not clearly drawn but they are delicious to consider as we note that the age of Edgar’s and Alice’s daughter coincides with the last time Alice saw Kurt.
The beauty of dynamically throwing Kurt into the mix is that his character remains fluid. On the one hand he must see his cousin Alice and Edgar since he will be working with him to set up a Quarantine station on the island. On the other hand, Alice paints him into the corner of rescuing her from her dire marriage. Yet, Kurt is friends with Edgar, though he has had an affair with Alice. The complications and contradictions abound with glorious humor as the characters trip over their own logic and irrationality, confound themselves and each other.
The situation is exacerbated when Alice tells Kurt that Edgar will be locked up for embezzlement as she has blown the whistle on him so that she will finally be able to free herself, divorce Edgar and be with Kurt. This is no spoiler alert. Importantly, the philosophical wisdom and underpinnings of Alice’s relationship with Edgar are revealed by the end. And we understand that perhaps even in the afterlife, these two will be scratching, slicing and impaling each other on their latest witty barbs for the love of the process and the fact that each has bestowed the good will on the other to dance in this way.
Strindberg/McPherson’s themes are playful, trenchant, profound, socially satiric. Of course the target both playwrights hit is loveless marriage, loving marriage. Couples tend to stay in long-lived marriages for they have found the “way” to be together. Everyone’s “way” is different. If there is no “way,” there is divorce or immediate death. The notions of death in life and the chain of death being wrapped around couples that can only be severed when one or the other dies may be a dangerous one. In how many marriages over the centuries has the one spouse dispatched the other becoming the inheritor of wealth, or lands or freedom unjustly, malevolently?
Perhaps Edgar and Alice are more comforting in their outrageous, authentic and honest antics. Nothing surreptitious there. With Edgar and Alice, after each “dance of death” where they have at each other in their death matches of soul and ego wounding, there is no victor standing. The resurrection comes when they live to the next day to experience some peace and reconciliation until the next bout of rancor and explosive verbal violence. In between they can laugh and that we can laugh at them is the recognition that the human condition is so strange and tragic as to be a cosmic joke. And if at the end of the play, the end of this truly marvelous production, we can laugh and have joy, that is miraculous.
This version by McPherson incredibly directed by Clark with the measured and brilliant performances by Topol, Beck and Innvar is a complete treasure that you must see. The Dance of Death currently runs with no intermission at CSC (136 East 13th Street) until 10th March. It should be extended for its actors’ clearly expressed intentions out of which the hysterical comedy arises, for McPherson’s crackling, gobsmacking version and appreciation of the genius of Strindberg’s work, for Clark’s concise staging and direction. You can purchase tickets at the CSC website.