With a script originally written for Natasha Richardson at the Roundabout eight years ago but never produced, playwright Richard Nelson has crafted a keen-eyed look at August Strindberg’s 1888 psychosexual tango of class and gender, “Miss Julie.” At Yale Rep, the dance of death and desire gets an incendiary production under the clear direction of Liz Diamond and a trio of terrific actors.
What’s love got to do with it for young Miss Julie, the mad mistress of the house in her search for self, or for Jean, her father’s footman who has ambitions and dreams of his own? Not much. Instead, we get a primal study not just of passion but of power.
Nelson’s adaptation and Diamond’s direction smartly keep the push-me, pull-you dynamic always in play. The game of role-playing, head trips and sexual manipulation never takes a breather in this unrelenting, razor-sharp production, which acknowledges its nuanced naturalism while embracing its inner opera.
It underlines the questions of conflict in deeply psychologically rooted arias: Who is master and who is servant? Sadist or masochist? Who is upstairs and who is downstairs?
Yvonne Woods as Miss Julie first comes across as Tracy Lords in a 19th century version of “The Philadelphia Story.” But her complexity soon becomes evident in a continually varied perf of chaos and control. This porcelain figure of privilege is haughty and needy, cruel and vulnerable, one who commands her domain while at the same time terrified of her surroundings. Woods beautifully plays her simultaneously like a prize filly in heat, a terrified little girl and a deranged Ophelia.
Peter Macon’s vain, exploitive and upwardly mobile Jean is as cool and precise as Julie is hot and erratic. Though Macon’s Jean tends to be a bit too much in control and disguises all too well his origins beneath his veneer, it is still a powerful and centered perf that remains riveting throughout, especially when his contempt turns deadly. Fact that he is a towering black man to Miss Julie’s fair delicacy gives the production an added edge of carnal danger.
Marissa Copeland is the picture of industry, weariness and pragmatism as Christine, the cook betrothed to Jean who knows she is fated to clean up after the deluge.
With the School of Drama as a resource, this version retains the supernumerary servants and townsfolk that tend to be jettisoned. The sense of prying, partying eyes peeking in through the windows and the simmering lust of the outside mob during midsummer’s revels are subtly evoked until the heat finally bursts onstage in a frenzy of simulated sensuality, stylishly choreographed by Peter Pucci.
Sara Ryung Clement’s set nicely fills the wide Rep space and indicates the grandness of the manse above as well as the grungy detail of the lower depths of the servants’ world. (Her set also manages to magically whisk away a stage flooded with water after the pipes literally burst during the orgiastic interlude.) Erin Billings’ costumes and Blythe Pittman’s lighting add to the mad, desperate and dreamy world hidden just below the surface.