It would be easy to dwell on the physical in Arena Stage’s stunning marital slugfest Dance of Death—to concentrate, say, on the sepulchral figures who glide behind the production’s translucent walls, the scarlet armchair that hints at bloodbaths to come, the tilted fluorescent tube that gives August Strindberg’s vicious leading lady a sickly pallor as she pounds out waltzes on the piano, and the canted, bilious floor that threatens to tip her monstrous husband’s paranoid frenzies into the audience. But since Arena’s cast gets a substantial chuckle with the evening’s 11th line and a pretty big laugh with its 12th, perhaps we’d better start with the production’s most audacious notion: Strindberg as prankster.

The dour Swedish playwright is not generally considered one of modern drama’s great clowns. Most of his work—fiercely misogynist and haunted by nightmarish parallels to his own disastrous marriages—concentrates on what he saw as a pitiless battle between the sexes. A recent Arena double bill of The Father and The Stronger showed how ferocious the author’s denunciations of humanity’s moral corruption could be.

In fact, Dance of Death is so unrelenting a portrait of a hellish marriage that it’s rarely produced today, though less than a century has passed since its debut as a ground-breaking classic. Contemporary audiences prefer their discord leavened by entertainment values and empathetic characterizations, neither of which were much on Strindberg’s mind when he set a nasty military captain and his harpy of a wife to raging blackly at each other. By the time audiences meet Edgar and Alice on a bleak island outpost, the embittered couple’s 25-year marriage has become a funeral cortege of punishment, insult, and humiliation. Turning visitors into pawns in their vicious games and blaming each other for the ruined lives of children who never appear on stage, they see death as a seductive escape route.

Sound like a laff riot? Well, if it does, chances are you’re familiar with Edward Albee’s comparatively jest-filled Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, which critic Martin Gott-fried described at its 1962 premiere as “so similar to Dance of Death as to raise questions of plagiarism.” Or you might have seen Washington Shakespeare Company’s eccentrically comic interpretation of Sartre’s No Exit a few years back. Or you might be JoAnne Akalaitis, one of the contemporary stage’s most innovative avant-gardists, and the director in this, her D.C. debut, of an exhilarating, genre-bending vision of Strindberg’s masterwork.

Akalaitis’ transformation of Dance of Death from dire melodrama to blistering comedy isn’t just unorthodox, it’s revelatory—visually arresting and unabashedly expressionistic (the performers make choreographed slo-mo entrances, snap heads to punctuate verbal duels, wring hands when discussion turns to manipulative schemes, and cross the stage to yawn pointedly in one another’s faces). Arena’s subscribers haven’t seen so stylized a production since the East European directors Liviu Ciulei and Lucien Pintillie went off to make their movies. But the evening’s most striking accomplishment is that it manages to be ferociously funny without sacrificing the malignancy of the characters.

That first chuckle, for instance, comes in an exchange that establishes the evening’s caustic comic rhythms. Alice (Tana Hicken) has been needling Edgar (Henry Strozier) about not lighting the cigar he claims is his only pleasure in life. “Pleasure?” he snaps, too intent on scoring an easy point to realize he’s being set up. “What’s that?”

Her comeback—“Don’t ask me!”—one-ups him neatly, getting a laugh while letting the audience know just how implacable this couple’s battle for supremacy is going to be. From there on, they’re adder-tongued Bickersons in a sitcom-of-the-psyche. Games of cards, piano-playing, dancing, dining: No pastime is so innocent that it can’t be turned into an excuse for cruelty. When Curt (Gary Sloan), a friend from their single days, shows up, he’s appalled at first but ends up seduced by the nastiness (to the point that he turns literally vampiric). “It smells like poison leaking from the walls,” he says, taking a long look around at the parlor John Conklin has designed as a treacherous landscape situated atop boulders (a marriage-on-the-rocks, get it?). A see-through back wall lets the audience see a craggy, isolating wilderness populated only by a soldier who paces in slow motion (suggesting how the last quarter-century has passed for these two) and a figure of death, who comes inside only to remove a playing card from a deck on the table, ensuring that no one will ever get the upper hand.

Everything about this environment is at once exquisite and horrible. Jennifer Tipton’s eerie lighting brings costumer Gabriel Berry’s fabrics alive, curdling the bright colors favored by Alice and turning the men’s drab uniforms funereal. A gleaming, glass-domed telegraph clatters ominously from time to time, reminding viewers that there’s a world outside, while towering windows blow open of their own accord without ever suggesting that the parlor’s suffocation might be relieved. It helps, of course, that under Akalaitis’ direction, Strozier and Hicken are giving the most stylish performances of their careers, and that Sloan, though his role is comparatively thankless, is no slouch either.

Synthesized music by Bruce Odland underscores the evening’s hyperchoreographed moments with a chilling modernity that is also reflected in the new translation by Bill Coco and Peter Stormare. Their script is colloquial, sometimes to a fault—as when lines like “music gets him crazy” or “I’ll blow his brains out” make the principals sound so up-to-date, you half expect them to counter each other’s arguments with “as if!”—but mostly to good effect. The evening is, after all, steadfastly modernist.

Akalaitis honed her taste for theatrical experimentation during her long association with Mabou Mines, the renowned theater collective she co-founded in 1969 with her then-husband Philip Glass and such formidable underground-theater talents as Lee Brewer, Ruth Maleczech, and David Warrilow. Washington audiences have been able to see Akalaitis’ work only in touring productions that have departed after a performance or two, so she’s known here mostly for the kudos and brickbats she garnered in New York, where her tenure as Joseph Papp’s handpicked successor at the New York Shakespeare Festival was cut short when management worried that audiences were growing restless at her feverish experimentation.

For those who’ve wondered what all the fuss was about, Dance of Death is a genuine thrill—a lesson in the sort of energy a first-rate visionary can bring to an acting company as established as Arena’s, and a benchmark D.C. production for the ’90s. The evening won’t be to everyone’s taste—if you’re the child of divorce, it’ll doubtless revive nightmares—but there’s no question it’s a stunner.CP