Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Theatre AUM: "Miss Julie"

Swedish playwright August Strindberg was an early proponent of the naturalistic school in which important social themes, simplicity of form, and realistic details dominated the stage. In 1888, he penned Miss Julie, a play that almost didn't make it past the censors of his day, and which has challenged directors and actors ever since, as it posits a Darwinian approach to a steamy encounter between an aristocratic woman and a servant in her household -- a reflection of the disintegration of a 19th Century class system dominated by wealth and title but threatened by middle-class entrepreneurship: the genteel giving way to practical cut-throat men of business.

Theatre AUM, ever committed to introducing its audiences and student actors to classics of world theatre, is presenting an uninterrupted one-hour and five-minute version of Miss Julie in the guise of a "typical technical rehearsal process" in a blank space with "fragments of rehearsal furniture, props, and costumes", and with a Stage Manager reading the scripted set description of the Count's kitchen before the action begins. Whether this conceit by director Val Winkelman adds to an understanding of the piece is debatable, but it does impress on audiences that they are watching a play, so perhaps they ought to pay close attention to its ideas and themes made clear through the accessible language in Harry G. Carlson's translation.

On Midsummer's Eve, the cook Kristine [Samantha Blakely], exhausted from a full day's work, prepares a simple meal for the Count's valet Jean [Jay Russell], her intended fiance, who enters exclaiming that the Count's daughter "Miss Julie is crazy again"; ever since she recently broke off her engagement, she has been acting strangely, and is now dancing with the peasants. And Julie [Blaire Casey] is so caught up in the emotional freedom of the night, she asks Jean to join her dancing; as Jean tries to politely refuse, Julie's approach changes and she cajoles and soon demands obedience.

There is continuous discussion/debate on the importance or irrelevance of social classes: Jean has pretensions of using his charm and education to rise above his station, but is often forced by habit to keep his place; Miss Julie descends the social ladder in order to be free of the restrictions imposed on her to always keep up appearances, but can't function if she relinquishes the power that comes with her title; and Kristine, a superficially devout church going peasant has no inclination to change, though she sees both sides with clarity.

What starts as a frivolous social faux pas by Julie soon becomes a battle of the sexes, with each combatant adept at manipulating the other by wielding sexual attraction and well-aimed words as their potent ammunition. When Jean tells her "You play games too seriously", and with Kristine conveniently off to bed for the night, Julie leaps on it as a challenge. Mistress and servant, aristocrat and peasant: Who will survive as the fittest?

They hide in Jean's bedroom from a group of peasants who take over the kitchen in their Midsummer revelry (their singing, dancing, and carousing only described by the Stage Manager), and on coming back to the kitchen, Julie is filled with shame for having had sex with him, and their roles are reversed. On the Count's return, Jean reverts to servant behavior. Seeing no way out but suicide, and with Kristine's sanctimonious disregard for their plight, Julie relinquishes control to Jean saying "Command me, and I'll do it".

Such a pair of characters who can hardly keep their hands off each other despite the strict social taboos would be better served by amping up the physical intensity between the actors, and affording more stage time to the erotically charged atmosphere inherent in the script.

Hamlet's advice to the Players: "to hold...the mirror up to nature" and to "suit the action to the words, the words to the action" still holds some value. The litany of potent words in Miss Julie: love, hate, proud, crazy, vulgar, master, servant, whore, razor, ambition, flattery, fear, whip, et al., cry out for intensely passionate performances. And though the ensemble trio at AUM told the story clearly enough, and focussed some attention on the aforementioned Darwinian themes and social issues, they were rushed through the performance without spending sufficient time to let the words and actions sink in or to show the struggle with physical intimacy that their characters experience, and lead to their ruin.

In our own time, we are seeing the entitled few obdurately holding on to some mythical past and unaware of the damage they are inflicting on the other 99%; perhaps Miss Julie's unfortunate ending could be a lesson for them to digest.