The Captain is dead! Love live Gandolf!
Ian McKellen — who, as J.R.R. Tolkien's wizard Gandolf in the film "Lord of the Rings," has become an international movie star known to millions of children since he opened on Broadway in The Dance of Death — will give his last performance as the vindictive, vainglorious, vanquished Captain on Jan. 13. The limited run began Sept. 18, with an Oct. 11 opening.
The turn was McKellen's first in New York since his Richard III visited the Brooklyn Academy of Music several years ago. His co-stars were Helen Mirren, David Strathairn, Anne Pitoniak, Keira Naughton and Eric Martin Brown. Englishman Sean Mathias directed the Richard Greenberg translation.
Given the play's title and its caustic subject matter, many wondered whether Dance of Death would survive the rocky economic days which befell Broadway following the Sept. 11 attack on the World Trade Center. However, the drama, no doubt bolstered by the star power of its two leading players, regularly posted robust numbers. The New York Post reported Jan. 9 that the venture eked out a small profit.
Mirren made her belated Broadway debut in the mid-90s in A Month in the Country at the Roundabout Theatre Company, starring opposite Ron Rifkin and F. Murray Abraham. Her performances netted a Tony nomination. Her UK theatre credits include Collected Stories, Orpheus Descending, Extremities, Antony and Cleopatra, The Dutchess of Malfi and many productions with the Royal Shakespeare Company.
Strathairn is a regularly praised presence on the New York stage, his many Broadway and Off-Broadway efforts including the recent Stranger by Craig Lucas (who recently penned an appreciation of Strindberg in The New York Times) at the Vineyard Theatre and Ashes to Ashes at the Roundabout.
Pitoniak won a Tony Award nomination for Marsha Norman's 'Night Mother. In recent years, he has embodied many an aged woman role in such Broadway offerings as Uncle Yanya and Picnic at the Roundabout, and Amy's View opposite Judi Dench. She'd been slated for a role in the upcoming revival of The Crucible but didn't relish having to rehearse all day while still doing Dance of Death at night. (The role went instead to Helen Stenborg.)
Naughton, the daughter of actor James Naughton, has appeared in several productions with various small Off-Broadway companies, including Worth Street Theatre's Uncle Jack, the Signature Theatre Company's The American Clock and Blue Light Theatre Company's Hotel Universe. Finally, Eric Martin Brown, who makes his Broadway debut with Dance of Death, was directed by Mathias in Serviceman at Off-Broadway's New Group.
Dance of Death was written by the Swedish dramatist in 1901 and belongs to Strindberg's later, expressionistic phase, a period which produced such classic works as The Ghost Sonata and The Dream Play. McKellen and Mirren play Edgar and Alice, an aged military officer and wife for 25 years, who dwell in an isolated home they have dubbed "Little Hell." As they prepare for their silver anniversary—bereft of children and servants, all of whom have abandoned them to their endless bickering— a figure from their past enters the scene and turns the house and the couple's relationship upsidedown. The play is seldom done, but is thought a tremendous influence of future works, most particularly Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?.
— By Robert Simonson