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Jim Mezon as Edgar, Fiona Reid as Alice and Patrick Galligan as Kurt in The Dance of Death.

David Cooper

2 out of 4 stars

Title
The Dance of Death
Written by
August Strindberg
Directed by
Martha Henry
Actors
Jim Mezon, Fiona Reid
Company
Shaw Festival
City
Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont.

Some matches may seem like they're made in heaven – but end up leading to unhappy marriages, nevertheless.

Take The Dance of Death (please), August Strindberg's 1900 battle of the sexes, now on view at the Shaw Festival.

Casting Jim Mezon, the Shaw ensemble's most formidable actor, known for his powerhouse portrayals of patriarchs, and Fiona Reid, one of our greatest comic actors and in demand across the country, as husband and wife in this Swedish play and placing it in the Festival's intimate Studio Theatre certainly sounded like a recipe for sure-fire success.

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Indeed, The Dance of Death has sold out performances before opening – leading the Festival to expand seating by 10 per cent to accommodate the demand for watching these two excellent actors rip each other apart as Edgar and Alice.

Alas, the union of Canadian stage legends does not live up to expectations in director Martha Henry's production. While there are snatches of exciting individual performances here, too often the leads are simply not on the same wavelength.

Strindberg's drama – we only get Part I here, in a new version by Irish playwright Conor McPherson – has influenced 20th century playwrights from Edward Albee to Eugene O'Neill to Jean-Paul Sartre.

Edgar, a paranoid and cantankerous army captain, and Alice, his resentful younger wife who gave up her career on the stage to marry, live in the tower of a former prison on a isolated island, bickering away as they await their final reckoning.

"Soon it will be all over: We'll be dead, and all that's left is your rotten carcass, and all it's good for is to fertilize the cabbages," the Captain says, in a discussion about their impending 25th wedding anniversary.

"So we go through all of this just of the sake of the cabbages?" Alice replies.

(Yes, there are hints of Samuel Beckett in here too – perhaps particularly so in McPherson's translation.)

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Arriving to provide a distraction from Edgar and Alice's march to the grave is Alice's cousin, Kurt (Patrick Galligan), a doctor who has come to set up a quarantine on the island. The couple takes full advantage, using him as a plaything and a weapon against each other – driving the kind man mad through a mix of psychological torture and seduction.

As Edgar, Mezon goes big – taking the character's near-sightedness to clownish heights, standing millimeters about from a barometer to read it or holding playing cards right up to his nose.

His exaggerated physicality provides the evening's chief pleasures – whether he's having fits in his chair, eyes rolled back and one arm vibrating furiously, or performing The Dance of the Boyars with extreme concentration. At his best, Mezon's Edgar is comic and chilling at once – a kind of cross between Yosemite Sam and Hamm in Endgame, if you can imagine that.

Playing Alice, Reid doesn't have the same go-to bag of tricks to bring the higher registers of Strindberg's text to life. She stays fairly contained, keeping her wits about her (and her dry wit), and ends up coming across as the straight woman to Mezon's Captain rather than his equal in iniquity. Her performance doesn't go out on as many limbs – it mainly stays safe in the drawing room.

And yet, while Mezon's is the wilder performance, there are recognizable emotions within him – jealousy, even love, peeking through. Reid remains a consistent cipher by his side.

Martha Henry's omnivorous production is equally hard to get a read on. Rather than taking a strong, singular take on the material, she lets the tone and style slide from dark comedy to melodrama to expressionistic drama from one moment to the next.

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The inconsistency is confusing rather than compelling. William Schmuck's set is, on one level, intricately detailed in its realism – but the walls of the tower then become see-through, refocusing our eyes on blasts of purples and greens that lighting designer Louise Guinand shines on a scrim behind.

Doors open on their own – except when they don't. A telegraph machine brings in messages in morse code on ticker tape with historical accuracy, then a speaking tube bring us replies from an unseen maid that sounds like the adults in Peanuts cartoons. A sentry lopes by the open window – and ages mysteriously after intermission. Violins suddenly underscore the action, forcing a note of sentimentality.

Strindberg is considered the father of naturalism in the theatre, but most of his plays, from Miss Julie to A Dream Play, are hard to pin down. Perhaps Henry is simply following each thread in this one wherever it goes rather than trying to impose order on the chaos.

Perhaps her production all takes place in the moody mind of the playwright (who she suggests in the program would probably be classified as bipolar today) – and that explains why the atmosphere violently moves from manic to depressed.

Unfortunately, The Dance of Death does not remain fascinating for long – and while it has its startling moments and a few dark laughs, the necessary cursed chemistry to transform this jagged play into a demonic two-and-a-half hours instead of a deathly dull one is missing.

The Dance of Death continues to September 10 (shawfest.com).

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