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Miss Julie

Non-violence? This country was born out of violence. I ain't turnin' the other cheek. —John
The above quote from Stephen Sachs' adaptation of August Strindberg's classic reflects its transposition from a Swedish manor in the 1880s to a Mississippi mansion in 1964, during the "Freedom Summer" of the Civil Rights struggle. Sachs, who also directs, calls the racial concept "re-imagined." It certainly makes it relevant to contemporary audiences. However, much of Strindberg's delicate characterization, particularly in the servant Jean (John in this production), is lost by the change. The result is a powerful and interesting curiosity that leaves one longing to see a brilliant production of the original.

Miss Julie, dazzlingly played by Tracy Middendorf, remains a girl bewilderingly raised as a tomboy by a semi-demented mother who was far ahead of her time in championing women's rights. She taught her daughter to hate men, made her male servants do women's work and vice versa. Miss Julie, whose father is here a judge, plays a dominatrix role with her former fiance, taking her riding crop to him and ordering him to jump until he strikes her and leaves. She tries the same thing with John ("Kiss my shoe! Kiss my hand!") which backfires.

John (Chuma Gault), now a chauffeur, and his fiance Christine (Judith Moreland), the cook, both African-American, slip quickly into servile roles when Miss Julie enters the kitchen, drunkenly commanding John to dance with her. After Christine leaves, the play follows the original in the sexual passion, emotional warfare and ultimate tragedy between the servant and the woman who is now his mistress in several senses.

The characterization of John lacks the sophistication of Strindberg's Jean, who was a sommelier (wine steward) at a grand hotel and who was genuinely hurt by Miss Julie's fall from the pedestal on which he'd placed her to a drunken lustful woman. He also shrewdly assessed her, saying she got carried away by her emotions and now wants to cover up by telling herself that she loves him. Strindberg's Jean says, "You might possibly have been attracted by my looks, in which case your kind of love is no better than mine. But I could never be satisfied to be just an animal for you and I could never make you love me." Strindberg's servants have become as thieving and corrupt as the masters who are their supposed role models but this production focus on the civil rights scenario whose dialog veers between passion for freedom and anxiety caused by such murders as the three civil rights workers from New York.

The warm somewhat shabby kitchen reinforces a fall in the family fortunes. Both set by Travis Gale Lewis and costumes by Shon LeBlanc are right-on 1964.

As Julie surveys the wreckage of her life, she finally gives up trying to place the blame on her father, her mother, or John, realizing she is still the one who has to bear the guilt and the consequences. She's afraid to leave and afraid to stay.

Sachs works his customary magic with the actors, particularly the women. Moreland is real and satisfying as freshly baked bread in the role of Christine and Middendorf is mesmerizing, despite limited facets which may be due to the production's emphasis on social context more than characters. Gault, a powerful actor, hits his marks but also suffers from the limited range created by this adaptation which allows him few of the nuances vocally or emotionally of the original. Strindberg expunged certain speeches as not in keeping with Jean's character. One wonders what he would have made of this re-imagination.

Adapted and Directed by Stephen Sachs, based on the original play by August Strindberg
Cast: Judith Moreland (Christine), Chuma Gault (John), Tracy Middendorf (Julie)
Set Design: Travis Gale Lewis
Lighting Design: Kathi O'Donohue
Costume Design: Shon LeBlanc
Sound Design: David B. Marling
Running Time: 90 minutes, no intermission
Running Dates: February 9-April 1, 2007
Where: The Fountain Theatre, 5060 Fountain Avenue, Los Angeles, Reservations: (323) 663-1525.
Reviewed by Laura Hitchcock on March 9.
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