There are currently two August Strindberg plays in repertory at Classic Stage, though only one of them is recognizable as the Scandinavian writer’s fare. Both are adaptations, but one veers far from its Swedish roots, traveling forward in time and about 9,000 miles south, landing in post-Apartheid South Africa. The other stays at home, stuck in the same Swedish sitting room, but featuring new dialogue by the Irish playwright Conor McPherson. The differences between these sibling plays mirror some actual siblings in that, though they have the same father, they could not be less alike.
McPherson’s adaptation of The Dance of Death keeps its bickering couple, Alice (Cassie Beck) and Edgar (Richard Topol), rooted in the turn-of-the-20th-century trappings in which they were created. McPherson’s dialogue is not quite contemporary, but the ways some lines are structured, and their delivery by Beck, in particular, give a somewhat updated punch to the text. It’s hard to nail down the tone of McPherson’s adaptation, because it doesn’t have any significant bearing on the play. Strindberg’s characters nag and wheedle at each other, seeing how far they can push the other, before both coming to a defeated understanding at the end. In McPherson’s version, it’s not clear why. There isn’t enough in the text that demonstrates why they tolerate each other’s button-pushing. They both act like assholes, but that’s not enough reason to accept why they call a truce. The consequences of their attacks on one another are not presented in a way that illuminates how severe they may be; each threat from one spouse to the other seems empty and they’re neutralized too easily. Some of this is Strindberg’s fault, but McPherson’s adaptation only emphasizes the gaps.
Beck and Topol, both fine actors with the right material, here come off as children throwing tantrums, which would be fine, if the adaptation found humor in their juvenile behavior. Laughter does seep in, mostly because the actors and director Victoria Clark can’t help but play some of the absurd things the couple does to each other for laughs. It comes not organically, but from an absence of credibility. The chuckling is at the expensive of the couple’s relationship. Every acknowledgment that the events are silly lowers the stakes and invalidates the repercussions. In so loosely tempering the seriousness with humor, it creates a muddy middle ground in which the events of the play can’t take root.
It’s a complete and utter surprise, then, if you see The Dance of Death’s sibling play, Mies Julie, after it. Yaël Farber’s adaptation transplants Strindberg’s Miss Julie to South Africa in 2012 and, in so doing, enriches the text, allowing the characters to grow fuller and more dimensional. Farber’s Julie is still the rich, entitled mistress of the house as she is in Strindberg, but there’s a deep sorrow that comes with that, a sorrow that she drowns in drink and erratic behavior. This involves tormenting her servants, specifically the young black man, John, in whom she sees a similar dissatisfaction with his place in the world. Farber uses the racial and class dynamic to both distance and connect Julie and John. Julie exploits the common ground that she finds with him, ordering him to do things he does not want to do, just so they can feel momentarily tied together – be it sexually, spiritually, or emotionally. Julie uses her position above John to force him to help her look for escape. She gets carried away, and, in a visceral final act, destroys everything for everyone.
Farber takes Strindberg’s play as a jumping-off point, but the two are similar only in broad strokes. Mies Julie is more concerned with how the ruling class interacts with the serving class even after the dismantling of Apartheid, similar to how racism did not vanish in the United States after the Civil Rights Movement. Julie forces John to lick her boot – her father pays his wages, so, in her eyes, she is entitled to demean and abuse him. She seizes on his attraction to her to pressure him into sex and then threatens to cry rape if he does not do exactly what she wants after that. The play may take place on Freedom Day, a national holiday in South Africa, but nothing about John’s life is free.
Shariffa Ali’s production is cast perfectly, from Elise Kibler’s moody, exacting performance as Julie, to James Udom’s internally pained John. The actors have an electric chemistry that takes many an agile shift as the dynamic between the characters changes from sentence to sentence. As John’s mother, a maid who raised Julie when her own mother was not interested, Patrice Johnson Chevannes disappears into the role, blurring the line between character and actor and doing the lion’s share of the work to create a sense of verisimilitude in the fictional world.
The Dance of Death and Mies Julie share scenic, lighting, and sound designers, though their work also favors the latter play. David L. Arsenault’s set for The Dance of Death is little more than furniture on an oval floor and the production does nothing to transform that simplicity into something greater. In a late scene, Edgar drunkenly decides to clear out the living room, but there’s little impact in the idea of Topol just moving a couple of chairs and tables to the side. In Mies Julie, though, the simple kitchen design has history in the way the characters interact with it, in the way each piece is carefully aged and dilapidated, in the level of detail that is missing from the first play. Stacey Derosier’s lighting likewise achieves a deeper, more specific effect in Mies Julie. It is particularly haunting in the moments when a ghost-like figure, Ukhokho (Vinie Burrows), steps into the kitchen and blue lights slowly pulse, pulling the play from realism into the history passed. Quentin Chiappetta’s soundscape for Mies Julie is a constant reminder of the world outside the kitchen. There is so much else outside, so much life to be lived that calls to Julie and John. The certainty of the kitchen holds them in place; the sound outside beckons them to leave. The designers differ only in the costumes. Tricia Barsamian’s period dresses for Alice in The Dance of Death are attractive, but do not establish the character’s economic or social position visually, further unmooring the play from specificity. Ntokozo Fuzunina Kunene and Andrew Moerdyk’s designs for Mies Julie use color and dirt and buttons to paint the world of the play in the clothes. Each actor wears highly detailed garments that go miles in establishing their past and their present.
It makes sense on paper for these plays to be done together, but the experiment has resulted in one play that falls flat and another that soars high. The boldness of Mies Julie, the palpable, gut-wrenching quality of the storytelling produces an unforgettable seventy-five minutes about race and power. The Dance of Death is white people squabbling. It may have been better to focus solely on something new and challenging than to split focus with something that is a passable production of a kind of pointless play. The hope is that Classic Stage will see the success of Mies Julie, artistically, and move towards this kind of no-holds-barred theatre-making instead of languishing in a dusty sitting room trading limp barbs.