Miss Julep

(Gone with) Miss Julie

By August Strindberg
Translated by Michael Meyer
Directed and choreographed by Shela Xoregos
Musical director Eugene Abrams
Midtown International Theatre Festival/Abingdon Theatre Arts Complex Mainstage
312 West 36th Street (212/279-4200; www.midtownFestival.org; www.ticketcentral.com)
Equity showcase (closes Aug. 1)
Review by Jenny Sandman

Strindberg's Miss Julie, arguably his best and most well-known play, was a shocker when it was written in 1885. Its portrayal of a strong, bitter woman is itself an anomaly, but Strindberg's Julie is an unabashed sexual predator, in addition to being an aristocratic blueblood. Miss Julie shocked audiences with its mentions of menstruation and abortifacients, as well as its assertion that a woman could be just as sexually aggressive as a man - not to mention the play's inherent class struggle. When a flirtation with her valet leads to a brutal (if mutually satisfying) one-night stand, Julie is unable to shake her inborn class prejudices, and kills herself rather than run off with her servant.

Using the entirety of Michael Meyer's translation, unchanged, Xoregos Productions set Miss Julie in the American South of 1895. Julie was a pampered, spoiled plantation debutante; the valet, Jean, and the cook, Christine, were both black. The casting added an even more chilling note to the class struggle depicted in the play, and another frisson of scandal. Dramaturgically, it was a fascinating idea, and one that fit the original text and theme of the play quite well.

Unfortunately, the concept's execution was another matter. Julie, played by Talie Malnyk, was not the feminist depicted by Strindberg. Malnyk instead played the Southern belle stereotype to the hilt. Her Julie was flighty, fidgety, even simpering on occasion, who could not speak without fluttering her handkerchief and her eyelids. This is the woman who, by the end of the play, wants to drink from Jean's skull and bathe her feet in his blood. Julie is a predator, albeit a bipolar one, alternately proud and raving-not an aging coquette with an attack of the vapors. The accents were no better; Scarlett O'Hara and Foghorn Leghorn seemed to be the primary inspiration for the dialect.

In contrast, Christine (Kim Gainer) and Jean (Gregory Ward) were very centered and strong presences. They provided the real drama in this production-their romance was based on geography and convenience more than anything else, but it was an eminently sensible relationship, and Jean treated Christine with a delicacy and respect that was sorely lacking in his dealings with Julie. The chemistry between Gainer and Ward was apparent; would that there were any sort of chemistry between Ward and Malnyk. As it was, there seemed to be no reason for their affair-they didn't even seem attracted to each other, despite the dialog to the contrary.

In proper contrast to the tension and ferment in the text, the stage was almost bare, with only a modicum of furniture. The costumes, designed by Carla Gant, were historically accurate, and Jean's was particularly beautiful, with its bright-green coat. However, Julie's dress was too frilly and pastel for such a strong character. Director Xoregos chose to reinsert a ballet and a dance prelude specified by Strindberg (usually ignored in production). Here, the "ballet" is a partner dance between a black man (Keith Carter) and a white woman (Jennifer Thompson), and seemed to be a combination of a waltz and a square dance. The music was John Philip Sousa and Stephen Foster, adding another note of Southern authenticity. But the dances didn't add anything to the play or the production -- essentially, they served to slow down the action, which is why they are normally cut.

Setting Miss Julie in the post-Civil War South is an intriguing idea, one that deserved a more powerful lead and more driving forward movement.

Box Score:

Writing: 2
Directing: 1
Acting: 1
Sets: N/A
Costumes: 1
Lighting/Sound: 1

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Copyright 2003 Jenny Sandman