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Wednesday, May 26 1999
Dysfunction Junction
The Dance of Death (Part One). By August Strindberg. Directed by Richard Rossi. Produced by the Aurora Theater Company. Starring Lee Ann Manley, Julian López-Morillas, Jennifer Davis, and Marvin C. Greene. At the Berkeley City Club, 2315 Durant, Berkeley, through June 20. Call (510) 843-4822.

Drunkin' Grownups. Written and directed by Mark Routhier. Produced by the Mettle Theater Company. Starring Jack Halton, Nancy Madden, Matthew Rozen, P.A. Cooley, and Marin Van Young. At the Patisserie Cafe, 1155 Folsom (at Eighth Street), through June 5. Call 648-0480.

The "Dance of Death" is not really a dance but an artistic motif from European churchyard murals that show the grinning joker Death collaring everyone from common men to kings and popes. The pictures are similar to Mexican calaveras (those Day of the Dead skeletons dressed as recognizable members of society), and August Strindberg's two-part Dance of Death is a staged calavera, in so far as it shows a lonely, bitter husband and wife mired in a petty mutual hatred that keeps them morally crippled and unable to face death with dignity. The play had a direct influence on Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, as you might guess, and it's being given a keen and painful revival by the Aurora Theater Company in Berkeley.

The show starts with Alice and Edgar staring at each other in their stone tower on an island off the Swedish coast. Edgar is stationed there as an army captain. They keep in touch with the wider world by a telegraph box on the bureau. Both husband and wife are frustrated: Alice gave up prospects as an actress to marry Edgar; Edgar once tried and failed to get promoted to major. But they're also evilly twisted by their own rotten sense of having been screwed. The unpleasantness starts with the first line and doesn't stop until Alice's cousin, Kurt, knocks on the door. Then the couple pretend to be happy, which is worse than the bickering. Kurt tells Edgar privately, "The moment I entered I felt sick. ... The hate is so thick I can't breathe"; Edgar, on cue, passes out. He's constitutionally unable to hear that kind of thing. Later Alice plays piano while Edgar stomps out a ridiculous Hungarian-style dance, and collapses again, this time from a stroke. The rest of the play shows the three characters dealing with the possibility that Edgar might actually die.

Such stark material would be hard to take from a talentless cast, and a couple of New York productions in the '70s were notoriously bad. But the Aurora players do well. Julian López-Morillas is impressive as the heavy-breathing, tyrannical captain, tromping around in his combat boots but breaking down like a boy during the tantrums. The whining is a nice touch: If López-Morillas were any more rageful, he would seem imperious and terrifying, and that would be wrong. Instead he acts like a blubbering child. Lee Ann Manley has fine control as Alice, moving nimbly in and out of bitterness, shock, acidity, and phony manners. I missed some richness -- overtones and undertones that could have livened a few of her speeches -- but she has a strong command of her lines and moves the play forward nicely. Marvin C. Greene, though, plays a wooden Kurt, and exposes some of the script's contraptions. "Let me tell you how it was," he says, by way of introducing some family history, and we can feel Strindberg steering the dialogue in a way that might be hidden by a smoother performance.

Jennifer Davis has two small parts as a maid and as a mysterious old woman who wanders in while Edgar recovers from his stroke. She's fresh-faced and sharp as the maid, Jenny, but the Old Woman scene strains, either because Davis is too young to do a convincing hag or because the scene itself is a little fake. It's the oddest moment of a realistic script that lurches now and then into expressionism. (Strindberg was the David Lynch of his day.) It should be haunting, but it seems to come from nowhere, maybe because we have no reason for thinking anyone was outside in the first place. Better sound would help: The surf noises ebbing quietly from the speakers create an illusion of being island-bound, but not a seamless illusion, because the volume doesn't rise when the door opens.

This Dance of Death is only Part 1, so Edgar's desperation boils up but never explodes, and the calm at the end is uneasy. You need to sit through Part 2 for catharsis. It would be nice to see a company take on the challenge of presenting both halves of a play as monumental as this, but in the meantime the Aurora's half-Dance is a respectable (and all-too-relevant) memento mori. A hundred years on, Edgar might have a Web-connected PC on his bureau instead of a telegraph box, but it's not clear at all that his marriage would be any healthier or that he'd behave with any more grace.

Drunkin' Grownups, a new "site-specific" play at the Patisserie Cafe on Folsom, also deals with loss of hope, and even features a bitter old man who lost his advertising job back in the hippie days and now wastes his time in some forgotten doughnut shop in Maine. ("Drunkin' Grownups," you see, is a pun.) It might remind you of Lanford Wilson's Balm in Gilead, which the Magic did last year, or even The Iceman Cometh -- it belongs to the gallery-of-the-damned school of playwriting. Unfortunately, that doesn't make it any good. Mark Routhier's new script strikes a pose that shadows those older plays but doesn't say anything fresh.

The story has a 23-year-old named Cliff wandering into an all-night doughnut shop in Maine, called Maggie's Donuts, where he falls into conversation with Maggie and Harry, the bitter old man. Cliff wears a backward baseball cap and a T-shirt; Harry has a white goatee and glasses. It's about 4 a.m., and we learn that Cliff is waiting to elope with his fiancee, Claire, who's supposed to arrive at dawn. Harry decides to infect Cliff with his ferocious disillusionment and finally convinces the younger man that Claire, who's late, won't turn up at all. Two cookie-cutter Deadheads come in, and the conversation expands. The play should be an argument about the virtues and illusions of love, but it devolves into a recitation of cliches, and not even a dramatic one. Harry's overblown rants are completely unmotivated. They're freaks of nature, tornadoes that blow through with no fair warning.


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