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A CurtainUp Review
After Miss Julie
By Elyse Sommer
Playwright Craig Lucas's 2002 adaptation succeeded admirably in modernizing the text while retaining the Swedish time frame and setting. In a more drastic departure from tradition, director-playwright Stephen Sachs in 2007 transposed Strindberg's Swedish kitchen to a Mississippi mansion during the 1964 "Freedom Summer" of the Civil Rights Movement. As Sachs admitted, this was a case of a re-imagined Miss Julie more than a more traditional adaptation. This high concept production left our Los Angeles critic yearning for a classic revival.
Another playwright, Patrick Marber (Dealer's Choice, Closer) also took the story to another country and time — an English country house on the eve of the Labor party's historic win in 1945. This actually works quite well. That election was a pivotal turning point, a giant leap towards finally changing Britain's rigid class distinctions. But for Julie, the British mansion's young mistress Julie and John, her father's chauffeur/valet, their one-night stand is still fraught with the elements of heredity and environment that have made them, as well as Christine, the cook and John's fiancee, what they are. That conditioning dooms Julie's urge to escape her spoiled girl existence and his ambitions for a more independent, less servile life.
As I noted when I saw Craig Lucas's adaptation, whether true to its original time frame or updated, the success of any revival of Strindberg's play rests with how successfully the actress playing the title character handles the shifts from volatility to vulnerability, from willful independence to the need to be dominated. And there's the rub with the Roundabout's After Miss Julie. The name recognition casting of Sienna Miller is this production's Achilles heel.
Ms. Miller is certainly good looking enough to make it easy to understand John's attraction to her. However, while she's not terrible, she's less than terrific. Her Julie is too actress-y and one-dimensional to make us emotionally connect with the wildly conflicted young woman whose actions only many psychotherapy sessions could explain. Her poor little rich girl seems more like a character in a 1940s movie, than the child of a dysfunctional marriage filled with violence. She carries out her dead mother's dictum never to be any man's "slave" by using her status to seduce John and masochistically empower him to dominate her.
To return for a moment to my comments about the Craig Lucas's smartly cast adaptation as staged by Anders Cato at the Berkshire Theater Festival, my comment that the success of any revival of Strindberg's play depends on the performance of the title character. Seeing this latest version, turns out to require a postscript: When the Lucas adaptation transferred to the Rattlestick Theater in New York with the same director and Julie, the recasting of the actor playing the chauffeur diminished her opportunities to shine and the elimination of some of Cato's inventive directorial touches lessened the overall impact. This brings us back to the okay but less than a Wow! Julie at the American Airlines Theater. In addition to a so-so Julie, we have director Mark Brokaw at less than his best, with his ideas of inventive touches working less often than they should. Fortunately, the other Miller (no relation) is very satisfying as the object of Julie's sexual and emotional neediness.
Though a seasoned theater actor, Jonny Lee Miller was also cast for his high profile with American audiences on the Eli Stone TV series. I can't comment on his star power on that show, but his performance here has enough depth and nuance to make John fascinating to watch. He adeptly captures the ambivalence of the man caught between convention and habitual patterns via his relationship with Christine (Marin Ireland), and the more unconventional (and unattainable) possibilities evoked by the volatile Julie. His resentment at having fought in a war but returned to a life as a servant may not be as deep-seated as in the original Strindberg, but Miller is nevertheless enough of a seething cauldron. The final image of him cleaning his employer's shoes is devastating.
Also well worth watching is Marin Ireland, an actress I've never seen doing less than superior work. Her Christine makes for a splendidly understated contrast to all the emotional drama around her. She is a woman who knows her place but she's also fiercely strong willed. Some of her finest moments are unaccompanied by words. The scene where she helps the dishevelled John dress for church and then slaps him works as a telling bookend to Julie's slapping him after he goes along with her dangerous "kiss my shoe game." The scene when she is alone with Julie, helps Miller achieve one of her best moments.
As usual with Roundabout's plays at this theater, the production values are pleasingly authentic and in the case of Allen Moyer's set, richly detailed. Brokaw is to be commended for allowing long silences to convey the employee/employer tensions. The same can't be said for his handling of other details: Julie measured strides back and forth that huge kitchen and her almost running out the door to do what no modern woman would even think of doing after her first sexual encounter. . .the beheading of the bird she can't abandon. . .having John change his clothes on stage (to show off his abs?). Like Sienna Miller's performance, this revival overall isn't bad. But at today's ticket prices not bad isn't good enough.
Other production's of the play reviewed at Curtainup:
London critic had to say when Marber adaptation's premiered at the Donmar Warehouse in 2003 (with different director and cast): After Miss Julie--Marber's version Miss Julie,Stephen Sachs adaptation (Los Angeles 2007)
Miss Julie, Craig Lucas adaptation (Berkshires 2002 and Off-Broadway 2005)
s Miss Julie, Frank McGuinness adaptation (London 2000)
Miss Julie, Pearl Theater production (Off Off Broadway 1998)