Larry Yando adds another layer to multifaceted career with ‘Dance’
Hedy Weiss Sun-times THEATER critic April 8, 2014 11:26AM
Larry Yando stars as the alcoholic Edgar, doing battle with his wife and his inner demons, in the Writers Theatre production of “The Dance of Death.” | MICHAEL BROSILOW PHOTO
‘The Dance of Death,’ through July 20, Writers’ Theatre at Books on Vernon, 664 Vernon Ave., Glencoe. $35-$70. 847 (242-6000); writerstheatre.org
You might know him as Scar, the sinister wannabe king in the national touring production of “The Lion King.” Or as an impossibly fierce and smarmy Roy Cohn in Court Theatre’s “Angels in America.” Or as Richard Nixon in “Nixon’s Nixon” at Writers Theatre. Or as Pangloss, the happily deluded philosopher in “Candide,” Shere Khan, the villainous tiger in “The Jungle Book,” and the irresistible Ebenezer Scrooge (a role he has played with relish for six years) all at the Goodman Theatre.
Of course the actor in question is Larry Yando. And this week he will be back at Writers Theatre starring opposite Shannon Cochran in “The Dance of Death,” August Strindberg’s drama of a marriage from hell. The play, written in 1900 — and often considered as a template for the venomous sparring in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?,” penned six decades later by Edward Albee — is being directed by Henry Wiscamper, resident artistic associate at the Goodman. It features a sharp new adaptation by Irish playwright Conor McPherson (“The Seafarer,” “Port Authority”), that won acclaim when it debuted in London in late 2012.
When we chatted recently, Yando had just put on his military uniform costume (for “Dance”) for the first time and had just moved from rehearsals in a large church hall in Glencoe to Writers’ intimate “back of the bookstore” (the 50-seat Books on Vernon) stage.
“My first words were, ‘Are you kidding?,’ because I’d forgotten how exposed you can feel there, and how you can see the eyebrow hairs of the audience,” quipped Yando. “But I love it, because there is no margin for error in that space and it makes you stay so firmly connected to the truth. And that’s a tricky balance with this show because it’s a bizarre play that really pushes the limits in such a realistic playing space.”
Although Yando has never performed “Virginia Woolf,” he sees its connection to the Strindberg play.
“‘Dance of Death’ is about a married couple that has been locked in a relationship for 25 years,” said Yando. “And although these two people despise each other, they can’t free themselves, so they go on the hunt, playing psychological games to keep themselves revved up. I’m the drunk in the play — a man whose life is not what I intended it to be. Plus, my character, Edgar, is an army man who has been more or less exiled to serve as captain of an artillery battery on a remote island off Sweden. So he is pretty much alone there, aside from his wife, Alice, a bitter former actress probably too old to return to the theater. Things only shift a bit with the arrival of Alice’s cousin, Kurt [played by Philip Earl Johnson], who becomes ensnared in their battle.”
“The whole thing is potentially funnier than it might sound, despite all the bleakness and angst. And of course Conor McPherson brings that added Irish infusion.” (The playwright will be coming to Chicago for the show’s previews.)
Yando noted that Strindberg’s play raises some deep existential questions.
“Are we in some ways the living dead? Are we here just to do penance for some previous life? And if we are dead now, what becomes of us after our bodies are gone?”
The actor also confesses to connecting with Edgar’s military sensibility: “I understand his sense of order, his need to control things. And I understand the way he talks to his men, which is how he talks to everyone, even though he is washed up, with no real duties.”
Yando is effusive in his praise for Wishcamper, “an easy-going, intelligent director.”
“I told him I was afraid I was being too big for the space and he told me: ‘Don’t be afraid of your bluster; this man only feels good when he’s puffed up. Don’t be afraid of Edgar’s pomposity, and don’t be afraid to go to dark places.”
He also admires costar Cochran’s willingness to be a shrew. (The two have been friends for two decades, ever since they shared the stage in a production of “Sweet Charity” soon after Yando graduated from DePaul’s Theatre School.)
“The Dance of Death” runs through July 20, at which point Yando will have only the briefest chance to catch his breath before facing perhaps the most monumental challenge of his career — playing the title role in “King Lear” at Chicago Shakespeare Theater.
“In the back of my head I’m in denial about the whole thing,” said the actor.
NOTE: “The Dance of Death” will usher in a crucial transitional period for Writers Theatre as its mainstage home on Tudor Court is torn down and replaced by architect Jeanne Gang’s grand new complex. The 2014-2015 season at Writers will include two shows in the bookstore space (“Isaac’s Eye,” Lucas Hnath’s tale of Isaac Newton, directed by Michael Halberstam, and “The Diary of Anne Frank,” directed by Kimberly Senior), and a third production, John Patrick Shanley’s “Doubt: A Parable,” directed by William Brown, in the library of the nearby Glencoe Union Church.