A great cast with actors from The Negro Ensemble Company tackles August Strindberg's comedy "Playing With Fire" and does so marvelously.
If you’re in the New York area, you should check out the August Strindberg Repertory Theater’s production of Swedish playwright August Strindberg’s “Playing With Fire”. First, the play is one of Strindberg’s few comedies, and second the cast is excellent with actors from the renowned Negro Ensemble Company in New York City. “Playing with Fire” has been transported by Leslie Lee from its original 1893 Swedish summer house setting to a 1926 summer cottage of members of the black social elite in a neighborhood of Martha's Vineyard. In the play, Axel, a writer (James Edward Becton*), visits his friends, Kerstin (Toccarra Cash*) and Knut (Nathan James*), where they live with and off of his mother (Elizabeth Flax*), who constantly indulges in gossip, and his father (Jolie Garrett*), a wealthy retired businessman who lusts after Knut's mistress, his younger, poorer cousin, Adele (Jaleesa Capri). Meanwhile, both Adele and Kerstin have their sights set on Axel. Sparks fly as the characters contest for power over each other in a dynamic 90 minutes of comic drama.
I was invited for a rehearsal of the play, and was struck by what I saw. Apart from a well-written play, director Robert Greer has an amazing group of actors at his disposal, their timing was nothing short of superb, and one beautiful moment after another was revealed.
“They are great, just great,” Greer mused during a short break. “It’s been so much fun to work with them. They have realized Strindberg’s intentions to the degree the work demands, and they have attained a level of artistry that would have brought joy to him. Strindberg’s understanding of human nature and willingness to state the truth plainly is as shocking and refreshing today as it was in his own.”
James Edward Becton, who plays Axel says his knowledge of Strindberg before being cast in “Playing With Fire” was limited to “Miss Julie”, a play he read at university:
“But I think his work is a voice of humanity that still rings loud and clear from the distant grave in time and space which just validates how much or how little we have changed as a developing species. What strikes me most is that his themes are not color based, which makes this version even more impressive and interesting in that the production team opted to set this particular tale in a very particular time and place and in doing so has found success in telling a story from a lost and ignored perspective.”
The play is an easy one. Though some of Strindberg’s plays may seem to pedestrian and not all that relevant to a modern-day audience, “Playing With Fire” is not one of them. It moves quickly, with a marvelous sense of suspense - and when the end comes, it comes with a delightful shock. Only an artist at the height of his powers could have written material like this. The theme is the ever-present web of relationships, and how to untangle them – if it’s at all possible.
Text: Eva Stenskär
Photography: Hanna Aqvilin
The play will premiere on Friday May 18 and run through June 10 at The New School for Drama on 151 Bank Street in New York City (located between Washington Street and 9th Avenue).
For more information: www.strindberg.org or www.necinc.org
Other Strindberg events in the near future: Mind games in a relationship
*Members of the Actors’ Equity Association.