Conor McPherson’s adaptation of August Strindberg’s The Dance of Death is a bitter, superbly black comedy, which is said to have inspired such Twentieth Century playwrights as Eugene O’Neill, Jean Paul Sartre, Samuel Beckett, Harold Pinter and most notably, Edward Albee, whose now classic play Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is a direct descendent. Odyssey Theatre Ensemble’s production is bitterly scrappy, unflinchingly hostile, and so dark in its comedy that an audience winces as it laughs. The performance summoned up a memory of another brilliant black comedy, the 1989 film, The War of the Roses, which stars Michael Douglas, Kathleen Turner and Danny DeVito.
Set on a bleak Swedish island fortress around the turn of the Twentieth Century, a Captain (Darrell Larson) and his wife Alice (Lizzy Kimball), a former actress, are lurching toward their twenty-fifth anniversary with no sense of joy. They hate each other and are verbally scrappy, exchanging barbed words as a matter of daily intercourse. The place they live in is, appropriately, a converted prison. The Captain is a martinet nearing retirement. He is in poor health, a drinker, a domestic tyrant, and a man whose treacherous personality has hindered his career advancement. Alice is a beauty, fully capable of matching his abuse with plenty of her own. Despite their animosity, they are capable of sitting down to a hand of cards, and she summons up enough tolerance to glide over to the piano and play a piece for him, or even accompany him as he performs a bizarre saber dance. Their teenaged children no longer live with them, a relief to everyone.
Alice’s cousin, Kurt (Jeff LeBeau), newly arrived on the island to supervise a quarantine station, drops by for a courtesy call and gets sucked into the vortex of domestic hostility. He soon becomes a pawn in the game. He has a history with the couple having facilitated their first meeting and smoothed the road of the initial romance, despite his own attraction to Alice. As the play progresses, Kurt’s own sexual demons get released thanks to Alice’s seductive behavior, which is manipulative and devoid of true affection. Hmmm…an image of Elizabeth Taylor in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? just popped appropriately into my head.
The cast, under the flawless direction of Ron Sossi, is superb, embodying the complex characters in all the Strindbergian twists and turns of plot and emotion. Lizzy Kimball is the perfect Alice, haughty, beautiful, seductive, fierce and flinty. As the Captain, Darrell Larson runs through the full range of his character’s postures—whiney as aman who thinks he is to die soon; imperious in his military mode; pathetic in his neediness; exuberant when he thinks he has a trump card to play; and gleefully vengeful when he has the upper hand. Jeff LeBeau’s character, Kurt, is no less complex, taking a while to shed its buttoned up posture to reveal an astonishing tour de force of unleashed passion and cringe-worthy servility.
This Odyssey production boasts an A-list creative team consisting of set designer Christopher Scott Murillo; lighting designer Chu-Hsuan Chang; sound designer Christopher Moscatiello; costume designer Halei Parker; and props designer Misty Carlisle.
Odyssey Theatre Ensemble has mounted a classic play ideal in all ways. It is darkly, bitterly comedic, with characters who reveal themselves to possess no nobility whatsoever. It is a rare gem not to be missed.
The Dance of Death runs through November 19 at Odyssey Theatre, 2055 South Sepulveda Boulevard in Los Angeles.