Power of Live Theater in a Small Box

Dancing with Death (I) (1900)

By August Strindberg

When most of us think of live theater, Broadway probably comes to mind first, followed by lavish musicals, and then dramas. These could be on Broadway itself or tours visiting towns near you. Some familiar with smaller venues may not think of them as professional theater for whatever reason, perhaps simply because the spaces are small and what the heck can you do in a tiny space? And when we say small, we mean seating for 100 or fewer people.

However, small venues with professional troupes can provide you with the most powerful theater experience you’ll ever have. The reason: small venues put you virtually in the middle of the action. It’s as if you are a guest in each scene.

Imagine for a moment being between a warring couple dredging up every offense and ill feeling they have toward the other built up over the span of their 25-year marriage, then engaging in some outlandish behavior, and then pulling a visitor into the battle. Sounds like dinner at the outcast brother-in-law’s last Sunday, doesn’t it?

Recent personal experience brings this topic to mind; specifically, a truly stellar staging and performance of August Strindberg’s The Dance of Death (I). (There is a II that’s not nearly as good and, thus, rarely performed.)

Envision for a moment Hell as a viciously bad and eternal marriage, an unrelenting war between partners yearning for release, nearly achieving that release only to be pulled back into the marriage for another spin on the dance floor of mutual abuse.

There, in a nutshell, you have Strindberg’s often-produced, greatly admired, and quite influential The Dance of Death (I). Should you ever have the opportunity to see it performed, especially in a very small, good theater, seize it, for it is more than a play; it is an experience. That’s because you’ll feel as if you are in Edgar and Alice’s sitting room witnessing the most savage exchanges between marital partners. To put a finer, more modern point on it, it will be like tagging along with George and Martha as they drunkenly thrash each other in Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, a play informed by Strindberg’s.

Should this all sound off-putting and dreary to you, realize Strindberg had a gift for injecting humor into the most dire of circumstances. It’s of the very black type that makes you titter with personal knowledge, or embarrassment, or gratitude you are not his inspiration, especially if those inspirations are playing out the drama at your very feet.

On the subject of man and woman together in marriage, in the war between man and woman, he knew of what he wrote. The man managed to alienate three wives (marriages resulting in five children, a boy and four girls). His genius, though, and sharply tuned radar for hypocrisy allowed him a clear view of the relationship and legal problems of his day regarding marriage, divorce, and child custody, all reflected in this play.

As for the play, it concerns Edgar, an old army officer, and his wife Alice, a thwarted actress, on the cusp of celebrating their twenty-fifth wedding anniversary. They live on an island quarantine station (common in the period to prevent the spread of infectious diseases in the time before antibiotics). In the small space we saw this in, a space seating 50 people, the design matched up exactly to Strindberg’s direction, and the detail and costumes were such you felt yourself trapped in the dungeon of a room with the pair.

Beyond the window of the room is the station. Though it and a garrison occupy the island, Edgar and Alice aren’t very popular, particularly Edgar. The result is no friends and even greater isolation.

Edgar speaks constantly of dying, that being his escape hatch from the marriage. Alice continually demonstrates her bitterness about her marriage to him and what he forced her to give up. They have children who do not live with them because they each turned the children against the other. Thus, they find themselves locked in constant warfare, unable to give each other up, except, of course, with the final release of death.

Alice does see a chance at freedom when her cousin Kurt shows up, the very cousin who introduced the pair. In Edgar’s absence, their liking for each other devolves into an all out sexual assault upon each other (quite the spectacle when you are practically in the middle of it, as we were), with Alice seeing Kurt as her salvation. Kurt , however, comes to his senses, leaves them, and they go on as before.

We’ve seen other plays in very small venues. Even when they are not as strong as The Dance of Death (I), the closeness serves to amplify the impact.

So, if you’ve not been to a play in a small venue, open up the Sunday arts section of your print or electronic newspaper and find one. You’ll be happy you saw theater in a small box. c/w

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