Dark, morose, gloomy? Does the great Swedish playwright August Strindberg truly deserve his cheerless reputation?
David Krasner, an associate professor of theater at Emerson College, laughs and points to the title of a Strindberg play he’s been rehearsing: “Dance of Death.’’
“That’s pretty foreboding,’’ he says.
DANCE OF DEATH
Krasner plays one of the leads in Sunday’s reading of the 1900 drama, the story of a combative marriage, in the Jackie Liebergott Black Box at the Paramount Center. It’s the kickoff of Boston events in the international Strindberg 2012 Festival, an effort by Strindberg scholars to lift the writer’s profile on the 100th anniversary of his death. Centennial activities in Sweden are part of the official Strindberg Year.
Strindberg’s “ruthless truthfulness is why people are put off by him,’’ Krasner says, but bleak as Strindberg could be, the thrice-married dramatist was also highly modern in his depiction of the battle between the sexes, and often very funny. His work was key to later playwrights such as Eugene O’Neill and Edward Albee.
Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf,’’ in particular, owes a debt to “Dance of Death,’’ says Krasner, but when it comes to relations between men and women, especially in marriage, “most of modern drama, and most modern soap operas, are straight out of Strindberg.’’
“His whole idea of sexual warfare and the battle between the sexes - few if any writers ever had their fingers on the pulse of such a dynamic of desire and hate, and with that, sparks just fly in his plays,’’ says Krasner. “He didn’t have much hope in the sexual warfare. I think that’s why he gets that gloomy mark on him, in that Ibsen had a little more hope. . . . Strindberg didn’t see much hope for anybody, men or women.’’
Krasner and Mara Radulovic, a part-time member of the Emerson faculty, are the leads in this tale of power games within a bitter union - roles Ian McKellen and Helen Mirren played in the drama’s most recent Broadway revival, in 2001.
“As Strindberg would say, we’re born discontented,’’ says Scott Fielding, who directs the reading. “He’s very much attuned to this question of why are we unhappy in life and how can we be happy? Can we be happy under our own power? What is the role of God?’’
Fielding, who is also the director of the Michael Chekhov Actors Studio Boston, says Strindberg was quite contemporary in the complex psychology of his characters, with a touch that prefigures the theater of the absurd and playwrights such as Samuel Beckett and Eugène Ionesco.
“Dance of Death’’ “takes place in this fortress called the Little Hell,’’ says Eszter Szalczer, associate professor of theater at the University at Albany, State University of New York, who has written extensively about Strindberg. “This couple, they are tied together almost like ‘Waiting for Godot,’ like Estragon and Vladimir 50 years later.’’
Sunday’s reading is just the appetizer for a substantial spread of Strindberg-related events in March, including one in which Szalczer and Krasner will take part: a Harvard symposium on March 2-3 that will also feature Robert Brustein and Ture Rangström, artistic director of Strindberg’s Intimate Theater in Stockholm.
At this weekend’s event, to play with the ideas of modernism and absurdity, Fielding will augment the seated actors with a silent Butoh dancer and a swordsman.
“There will be action, but it will be simple,’’ Fielding says. “The emphasis will be on the spoken word.’’
Strindberg is sometimes called Sweden’s Shakespeare. Born in 1849, he published many novels and other books in addition to plays. He was also a skilled photographer and interested in science, once burning himself badly during an experiment in alchemy, notes Krasner. But his plays are less often produced than those of Ibsen, his contemporary from Norway.
Krasner says those involved hope the “Dance of Death’’ reading will catch the eye of Boston’s theater community, making possible a full production later this year. And March 1-10 will bring staged readings of a new contemporary adaptation of Strindberg’s “Crimes and Crimes’’ by Ulrika Brand, a writer and director who is co-editor of the website www.strindbergfestival.com. Her script updates Strindberg’s dark comedy of passion and backstage theatrical maneuverings to - where else - contemporary Hollywood.
For details on the events in Boston, go to www.scandinavianstudiesharvard.com.