Just as Campbell Scott and the Williamstown Theater Festival did in 1996, Craig Lucas and the Berkshire Theater Festival have fallen afoul of the fierce demands of Strindberg’s 1888 tragedy “Miss Julie” — and for virtually the same reasons.
Reviewing that earlier production, adapted and directed by and starring Scott, this critic wrote: “Strindberg’s naturalistic dance of class, sex and death is underplayed, emotionally and vocally, to the point where the cast’s conversational chatting can barely be heard even in the tiny theater.” The same can be said of this “Miss Julie,” which has been adapted by Lucas from a literal translation by Swedish-native Anders Cato, who also directs. About the only difference here is that there is blatant animal sexuality.
Strindberg’s Miss Julie, a Swedish count’s daughter who is brought down by her father’s upwardly mobile son-of-a-peasant butler/valet Jean, has been taught to hate men by her mother. There’s also a streak of insanity in her as she flirts fatally with Jean on midsummer’s eve in the kitchen of her grand home a hundred or so years ago.
Marin Hinkle doesn’t so much act Miss Julie as whisper her, sometimes swallowing sentences whole, so that she just can’t be heard in this intimate 122-seat theater. Hinkle is never more than an attractive, young, contemporary American woman, albeit one who needs to be taught how to speak clearly.
As the hypocritical cook Kristine, who is more or less betrothed to Jean, Rebecca Creskoff is a younger, prettier than usually cast in the part, and she too tends to underplay. Mark Feuerstein’s Jean is the only one who projects vocally, though he, along with Julie and Kristine, is still out of his depth in this difficult, often deliberately unpleasant play.
Certainly this production isn’t able to make its Miss Julie believable as she vomits and disgustedly washes herself (Strindberg just has her powdering her face) after being debauched by Jean and then, minutes later, begs him to say he loves her.
Why is it that adapters, directors and actors think “Miss Julie” can be played with low-key naturalism? Is it because they’ve misinterpreted Strindberg’s description of his play as a “naturalistic tragedy?” Fact is, it’s more of a Grand Guignol melodrama and needs assured, supra-naturalistic acting for it to work.
BTF translator-director Cato wanted a new English-language version of his countryman’s “Miss Julie” that would “speak to a contemporary, American audience.” Lucas has responded with a conversational adaptation this is recognizably Strindberg, and really not very different from Campbell’s version or the 1960 adaptation by Arvid Paulson. The differences include comparatively modern colloquialisms such as “guy” and “rolling in it” (referring to money), as well as blunt sexual terminology.
Cato’s far-from-subtle staging mixes too-contemporary characterizations with occasional frozen tableaux and expressionistic elements. The production does away with the singing/dancing appearances of farm folk; instead, when Jean hustles Miss Julie into his bedroom and proceeds to have violent sex with her, the scene is echoed by the kitchen being invaded by five performers miming sexual movements as the kitchen table centerstage is twirled on its central pole with two of them suggestively astride it.
Atmospheric music by Scott Killian, some of it piano, is well used throughout. And John McDermott has created an elaborate kitchen set, complete with stove, sink and early refrigerator, plus suggestions of other rooms off it as well as the green outdoors.
Olivera Gajic’s muted period costumes (long skirts for the women) are for the most part just fine. However, the trousers of Jean’s uniform are annoyingly ill-fitting and look too much like a pair of contemporary trousers poorly adapted.