What rabbit hole did this production fall down? Scott Schwartz's notion of setting this 19th-century Swedish masterpiece in a present-day occupied Middle Eastern country produces bafflement. Helmer's prissy disinclination to tinker with the text or otherwise re-focus the psychosexual material is worse than sloppy.

Miss Julie complains of being born an aristocrat, but she talks in the vulgar accents of a washerwoman. Her servant Jean grew up on a farm in some unspecified Arab country, but he speaks of Switzerland as if it were just over the border. The kitchen slave Kristine veils herself in the modest dress of a devout Muslim — to go to church on Sunday. What rabbit hole did this production fall down? Scott Schwartz’s notion of setting this 19th-century Swedish masterpiece in a present-day occupied Middle Eastern country produces more bafflement than insight into the eternal class struggle. Helmer’s prissy disinclination to tinker with the text or otherwise re-focus the psychosexual material is worse than sloppy: It’s witless.

There’s something to be said for placing Strindberg’s proud, ungovernable heroine and her adoring, ambitious servant in a broader sociological context and letting the sparks of their combustible relationship light up the unexplored corners of the play. But illumination is not a word that can be applied to this production.

In fact, producer-designer Beowulf Boritt (“The Last Five Years”), whose work usually has provocative qualities, seems to have gone out of his way to keep the stage proceedings dark, dreary and cramped. Overwhelmed by a giant, metal multilevel staircase that is a totally overblown symbolic statement of the upstairs/downstairs socioeconomic divide between servant and mistress, the kitchen quarters where the action takes place is oppressively barren and restricted. (Again, the heavy symbolism is unnecessary.) Had helmer Scott Schwartz chosen to give substance and integrity to the Middle Eastern setting and the servants’ Muslim backgrounds — for example, by having Jean unroll a prayer rug and observe his religious duties — there wouldn’t be enough space to pull it off.

With the broader religious and political implications claimed by this revival pretty much exposed as a sham, the classic text is what it is, a coruscating examination of the complex forces of attraction and repulsion between the classes. (While more specifically contemporary in tone than previous versions, including George Tabori’s moody 1955 treatment, Truda Stockenstrom’s new translation is pleasing — although the substitution of a big, black pistol for the sleek phallic razor with which Miss Julie takes her own life is unforgivably vulgar.)

In this context the production scores its only real coup in the sexy and supple performance from Michael Aronov (“That Tuesday”) as Jean. Thesp’s nuanced perf allows Jean to have all the complex emotions that are continually at war within his complicated character, from his smoldering lower-class rage and feverish desire to possess Miss Julie and all the upper-class power, possessions and privileges that her aristocratic character symbolizes to his profound terror of actually getting all for which he yearns.

While his portrayal doesn’t extend to a convincing account of Jean when the servant reverts to his fearful devotion to his master, Aronov does give expansive and exciting play to the character’s contempt and cruelty toward Miss Julie and Kristine. (Despite the fact that Kristine’s servant role in the drama is largely functional, Opal Alladin’s perf carries intimations of unarticulated womanly wisdom.)

But Strindberg did not call his drama “Jean.” Only an actress of surpassing intelligence and spirit should dare play Miss Julie, and without going into the painful details of Mimi Bilinski’s performance, let it be known that she is no such actress.

Miss Julie

Cherry Lane; 199 seats; $37

Production

A Beowulf Boritt and Jessica Niebanck presentation, under the sponsorship of Adobe Theater Co., of a play in one act by August Strindberg, translated by Truda Stockenstrom. Directed by Scott Schwartz.

Creative

Set, Beowulf Boritt; costumes, Mattie Ullrich; lighting, Tyler Micoleau; sound, Jill BC Duboff; production stage manager, Dale Smallwood. Artistic director, Angelina Fiordellisi. Opened June 22, 2004; reviewed June 26. Running time: 1 HOUR, 30 MIN.

Cast

Miss Julie - Mimi Bilinski Jean - Michael Aronov Kristine - Opal Alladin
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