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A CurtainUp Review
After Miss Julie
In 1889 Miss Julie, the psycho-sexual pas de deux between the unstable daughter of a count and his ambitious and virile footman, was at first banned as too radical. Eventually it played on stages throughout the world, as well as being filmed several times and made into a ballet.
Ranked as one of the best naturalistic dramas ever written, it also contains the seeds of the playwright's later more expressionistic bent. The characters or, as Strindberg preferred to think of them, "souls", provide actors with meaty, career-making roles. Equally challenging is the task of presenting a Miss Julie for our times, with language and presentation to match the inherent modernity of the content (the class struggle now translating into issues of sexual politics).
Until July 20th you can find just such a Miss Julie at the Berkshire Theatre Festival's Unicorn Theatre. The sexually turbo-charged adaptation adds Craig Lucas to the ranks of those taking time out from creating their own plays to adapt the work of the theatrical forbears to whom they are indebted. Using a literal translation by the production's director, Anders Cato, Lucas remains true to the original.
The setting remains a Swedish estate at the turn of the century where the spirit of a midnight festival for the servants triggers a brief sexual encounter with long-term tragic consequences between Miss Julie and Jean. (There have been a few more drastically re-imagined versions -- for example, one on a 1945 English estate and another with Julie slitting her throat on stage). The one-act, hour and a half format, is not a condensation to adapt to the short attention span of modern audiences, but true to Strindberg's break with the more traditional three-act play in order to heighten his drama through compression. All the dialogue is in place as well, but more colloquial, earthy and conversational. Expletives once implied are now explicit. This last also applies to the sexual encounter which, while without nudity, definitely send the temperature soaring.
Whatever the text used, Miss Julie, as my colleague Les Gutman remarked in his review of another production, is less about people than about forces. Julie is a passionate young woman whose family history and wildly shifting moods make her a candidate for tragedy, especially when indulging her taste for the below stairs life. The success of any Miss Julie rests with how successfully the actress playing her handles the shifts from volatility to vulnerability, willful independence to the need to be dominated.. The BTF's Julie, Marin Hinkle, satisfies on all counts. She fits the part physically and emotionally. If in some of her most wrenching scenes during the last third of the play, her voice doesn't project powerfully enough to be heard even in this intimate theater, her face and body language speak so vividly that you almost don't need words.
Mark Feuerstein, who was one of the best reasons to see the 2001 BTF revival of Clifford Odets' Awake and Sing, is even better here, the perfect partner in the nasty upstairs/downstairs mating game. He has moments of humor but he never lulls us into forgetting that this is a tragedy. His vocal delivery is strong and varied. Together he and Hinkle draw a searing and revealing portrait of a man and woman caught up in lacerating power play.
Rebecca Creskoff breathes life into the third and smallest part of the cook-fiance who is Strindberg's stand-in for the pious advocate of the status quo for whom Jean's betrayal is more to his God-given station in life than to her.
Director Cato has done a fine job of maintaining the sensibility of the period drama within the more up-to-date linguistic framework. The major liberty taken with the play as done during Strindberg's lifetime is in the staging of the sexual encounter. Instead of dances to substitute for an intermission and the reveling servants knocking on the kitchen door, as specified by the playwright, we now have five revelers representing the larger peasant population burst into the kitchen like a lynch-mob. In a dreamlike dance macabre they echo what is happening in Jean's room at the side of the stage. Anyone who has been to enough Unicorn productions, and especially last summer's presentation of Strindberg's Dream Play, will recognize this as a very Unicorn-like coup-de-theatre. The surreal interlude adds to the steaminess of the Julie-Jean coupling and prevents the update from robbing the play of its period flavor.
There are also some less showy but very effective directorial touches -- like the absent count's boots standing front and center, ever present reminders of Jean's position. He may brag that though not born a count he can give birth to counts (joking " Counts, one after the other -- countless/counts, countless--!") he cannot ignore the count's boots standing straight and stiff -- waiting to be bowed down to, polished, a symbol of servitude he knows he can only escape by going to another, freer country.
The staging generally is simple and effective. Set designer John McDermott has opened up the small playing area to create an old-fashioned, spacious stainless steel and white tiled kitchen -- a door at one side leads to the festivities outside, another at the opposite side gives us a glimpse into Jean's tiny room. The large kitchen table is on rollers so it can be angled to accommodate the scene with the revelers, but a pole from the center of the table to the ceiling blocks the view of Jean early on in the play for anyone sitting in the center area. Olivera Gajic's costumes carry through the production's black, white and gray palette. Scott Killian's moody score helps to establish the aura of impending doom.
Though American audiences have had much less exposure to Strindberg than another Scandanavian, Ibsen, this neglect seems to be coming to an end. Last season, his Dance of Death, adapted by another well-respected American playwright, Richard Greenberg, was done on Broadway. This fall New York theatergoers will have a chance to see yet another take on Miss Julie, this one a high profile production by the Roundabout Theater Company, adapted by Richard Nelson and starring Natasha Richardson and Phillip Seymour Hoffman. It sounds terrific, but its not likely to out-sizzle the production now at the Unicorn.
OTHER STRINDBERG REVIEWS
Miss Julie at the Pearl Theater
Miss Julie in London
Dance of Death on Broadway
Strindberg's Dream Play at BTF
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