NEW YORK — Anyone who thinks that mixed emotions are wishy-washy never met the work of August Strindberg. This unnervingly prescient Swedish dramatist, who lived from 1849 to 1912, portrayed relationships propelled by an ambivalence that scorched and withered.
His plays’ explosively fraught alliances anticipated the dangerous domestic war games of writers like Edward Albee and the destructive passions of film noir. When you watch George and Martha square off in their private connubial boxing ring in Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” or the lovers in the 1946 Rita Hayworth movie “Gilda” murmur breathlessly, “I hate you,” to each other, know that the ghost of Strindberg is chuckling somewhere in the shadows.
Listen, for example, to how one of Strindberg’s combative spouses explains why she’s stayed with her husband for nearly a quarter-century: “Finally, we had to recognize that we were bound by some evil force.” Another character echoes, “Yes, I know that emotion — hate and love forged together in the foundry of hell.”
You can hear those damning words in the Classic Stage Company’s revival of Strindberg’s “The Dance of Death” (1900), which opened Sunday in repertory with “Mies Julie,” Yaël Farber’s 2012 adaptation of Strindberg’s 1888 shocker, “Miss Julie.” In both works, just so you know, men are commanded, most debasingly, to kiss the feet of their … well, I was going to say “beloveds,” but that’s not quite the word.
As directed by Victoria Clark (“Dance”) and Shariffa Ali (“Mies Julie”), neither show fully musters the infernal heat that Strindberg’s love-hate dynamic can generate in performance. “Dance,” in particular, seems to take place entirely at room temperature.
But each production — featuring an efficient and evocative oval-shaped set by David L. Arsenault — provides an accessible and assimilable introduction to a complex and uncomfortable world. Cautious theatergoers unacquainted with Strindberg may dip their toes into his work without being blistered.
And this “Mies Julie,” set in post-apartheid South Africa, allows those audience members left reeling by Farber’s own, more intense staging of the show six years ago (at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn) to grasp more easily the rhyme and reason of her political recontextualizing of a dark classic.
In “Dance,” fluidly translated by Irish playwright Conor McPherson, Edgar (Richard Topol), an army captain stationed on an island garrison, and Alice (Cassie Beck), a former actress, are anticipating their silver wedding anniversary. Judging by the way they snipe at each other so mercilessly, in a home that was once a military prison, it would not seem to be an occasion to celebrate.
Anyway, it isn’t altogether guaranteed that Edgar, who has a habit of collapsing into comas, will survive long enough to see that day. Is this a cause for sorrow or jubilation for Alice? As she tells a rare visitor, her cousin (and perhaps former lover), Kurt (Christopher Innvar), the answer, of course, is both, or neither.
As Alice and Edgar have at each other, with nasty recriminations that infect the initially conciliatory Kurt, they are clearly acting out a pattern so familiar it has become a conditioned reflex. Clark, best known as a Tony-winning actress (“The Light in the Piazza”), has chosen to underscore the ordinariness of this marriage and the universality of its discontents.
In a way, witnessing Alice and Edgar’s exchanges here feels like a weekend visit to anybody’s long-married, aging parents, with the attendant longueurs. Topol — in a role that has been portrayed with volcanic force by Laurence Olivier and Ian McKellen — seems more grumpy than enraged. And Beck’s brisk and composed Alice comes across as merely waspish instead of vitriolic.
The virtue of such underplaying is that when what the performers are saying so calmly fully registers, your jaw drops in wonder at the harshness of it. It’s an experience not unlike reading Strindberg for the first time and being jolted wide-awake by its outrageousness.
The disadvantage is that while Alice and Edgar are sometimes funny, they’re never scary. Innvar gives the most passionate performance here, as Kurt finds his own dormant beast awakening. Still, when he tells Alice, “I want to bite your throat and rip out all your blood like a wolf,” you can’t fathom what inspired such vehemence.
It’s easier to understand the fury that animates “Mies Julie.” Strindberg’s original characters, a willful young aristocrat and her father’s valet, have been re-imagined as the daughter of an affluent Boer farmer and his favorite black servant in contemporary Karoo, South Africa.
Most interpretations of Strindberg’s original text are centered on the psychosexual unraveling of its title character, an imperious, death-courting figure. That Farber’s emphasis lies elsewhere is suggested by the epigraph by Sol Plaatje appended to her script: “Awakening on Friday morning, June 20, 1913, the South African Native found himself, not actually a slave, but a pariah in the land of his birth.”
He was referring to the enactment of the Natives Land Act, which enforced territorial segregation in South Africa while denying most of its black population the right to own land. Though “Mies Julie” is set in 2012 on Freedom Day, which commemorates the first postapartheid elections, Farber suggests that the baleful spirit of 1913 lives on.
The toxic love that develops between Julie (Elise Kibler) and the black servant John (James Udom) is strangled almost from its inception by societal sins past. (Vinie Burrows stalks the edge of the stage as an ancestral spirit.)
That perspective is heightened by the performance of Kibler, who looks defenselessly young and unformed. By the end, when she is reduced to saying pathetically, “I haven’t got a self,” you believe her. Julie is less a destructive protagonist here than a pawn of history, whose confused, antagonistic attraction to John transforms their sexual encounters into acts of reciprocal rape, which are graphically embodied onstage.
Julie’s passivity shifts the emphasis from the play’s title character to John and his mother, Christine (Patrice Johnson Chevannes). They are both excellent, making it clear that their different responses to their servitude — awakening rebellion in his case, obdurate resignation in hers — are cut from the same suffocating cloth.
That Farber overstates the didactic is more evident here than in the previous production I saw. Then the sustained torrent of emotion kept you from hearing the bluntness of some of her lines. (Julie: “You think my body is your restitution? My body your land grab?”)
The regional accents used here can be thick to the point of incomprehensibility. But the sense of a world in which everyone is terminally rootless comes across with haunting acuteness.
Strindberg’s sexual ambivalence dissolves into something even more all-devouring in this landscape of stolen pasts and indeterminate presents. As John says, after a bruising bout of sex with the girl he once worshipped, “Love is not possible in this mess.”
“The Dance of Death”
Tickets: Through March 10 at the Lynn F. Angelson Theater, Manhattan; 866-811-4111, classicstage.org. Running time: 1 hour 55 minutes.
Credits: By August Strindberg; directed by Victoria Clark; sets by David L. Arsenault; costumes by Tricia Barsamian; lighting by Stacey Derosier; sound by Quentin Chiappetta; music by Jeff Blumenkrantz; fight and intimacy direction by Alicia Rodis and Claire Warden; production stage manager, Roxana Khan. Presented by Classic Stage Company, John Doyle, artistic director, Toni Marie Davis, chief operating officer/general manager.
Cast: Cassie Beck (Alice), Christopher Innvar (Kurt) and Richard Topol (Edgar).
Tickets: Through March 10 at the Lynn F. Angelson Theater, Manhattan; 866-811-4111, classicstage.org. Running time: 1 hour 15 minutes.
Credits: By Yaël Farber; directed by Shariffa Ali; sets by David L. Arsenault; costumes by Ntokozo Fuzunina Kunene and Andrew Moerdyk; lighting by Stacey Derosier; sound by Quentin Chiappetta; music by Andrew Orkin; fight and intimacy direction by Alicia Rodis and Claire Warden; dialect coach, Barbara Rubin; production stage manager, Roxana Khan. Presented by Classic Stage Company, John Doyle, artistic director, Toni Marie Davis, chief operating officer/general manager.
Cast: Vinie Burrows (Ukhokho), Patrice Johnson Chevannes (Christine), Elise Kibler (Julie) and James Udom (John).
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.