Through June 29 at the Yale Summer Cabaret, 217 Park Street, New Haven. (203) 432-1567. http://summercab-tickets.yale.edu/single/PSDetail.aspx?psn=10117
By August Strindberg. Adapted by Kenneth McLeish. Directed by Chris Bannow. Scenic Designer: Kate Noll. Costume Designer: Seth Bodie. Lighting Designer: Solomon Weisbard. Sound Design: Jacob Riley. Performed by Ceci Fernandez (Julie), Mitchell Winter (Jean) and Celeste Arias (Kristin).
I was a massive Strindberg fan when I was in high school. Before there were Goth bands like Bauhaus and Siouxsie & the Banshees, some of us depressive black-clad teens got our bleak life-is-overrated affirmations from Swedish naturalist drama. The fact that August Strindberg, a pioneering modernist mope of the late 19th century, transformed himself from a no-nonsense realist writer into a leading expressionist (Ghost Sonata, Dream Play) made him an even bigger rock star in my eyes.
I’ve seen Miss Julie performed lots of times, mainly at colleges. Even though the characters in the play are relatively mature, settled into their lives and jobs and cultures (they even go to church!), this simple three-character debate about love, class and social responsibility resonates deeply with young adults. It asks questions about personal values, family heritage, cultural hierarchies, love, lust and loyalty, issues which many people explore and confront when they’re first starting to make their own way in the world.
In Strindberg’s scenario, the conversation comes out of desperate “what do we do now?” hysterics following a hook-up between the young lady of a wealthy household and one of the lordly family’s lowly serfs.
Miss Julie’s set in midsummertime, at a servants’ party of the grounds of where Miss Julie lives. But I can’t recall ever seeing this show actually produced at this time of year. The Yale Summer Cabaret has in some respects put together a traditional summer-stock season with scripts by well-known playwrights and a balance of comedy, fantasy and heavy drama. But not many stock repertory companies would give Strindberg a tumble in June.
Chris Bannow’s sharp, brisk, intense and disarmingly entertaining production makes you reconsider Strindberg’s position as a booking possibility for the dark months only. The production is enhanced by a rich, detailed kitchen set (designed by Kate Noll) that not onlyu gives the actors plenty of props to play with but underscores the much-commented-upon unseemliness of Miss Julie descending into her servants’ work area.
Strindberg’s script—not unlike the previous Summer Cabaret show of this season, Moliere’s Tartuffe—is loaded with sexist stereotypes and old-world scenarios that are hard to build credible scandal-ridden drama around in this day and age. Not even Kenneth McLeish’s softening of some of the harder edges of this relationship showdown, or presenting (as happened in Tartuffe) the class distinctions accessibly by delivering the dialogue here in an essentially British tone and manner, can mask the dated moments. But Strindberg’s genius is his focus on panic, lust and other irrational behaviors. The abrasive attitudes seem believable because of the vulnerable, unsteady, jousting that goes on. The characters prod and provoke and intentionally outrage each other. Bannows understands that, as the director, physically some of the exchanges to the point where Julie spends a good amount of time on her knees atop a large wooden table as her servant lover Jean dashes back and forth about the kitchen like the caged animal he has become.
Ceci Fernandez, whom I’ve admired in a number of shows she’s done at the Yale School of Drama, is an ideal actress for the demanding role of Miss Julie. Fernandez carries herself like a lady. Silks drape well over her curves. Her elaborate hairstyle stays immaculately in place until it’s time to get it mussed. But when she breaks, as Bob Dylan once said, it’s like a little girl. Fernandez’s sparkling eyes betray not just her superior-born vanity but an inner earthiness which exactly fits Strindberg’s descriptions of Julie. As her paramour Jean, Mitchell Winter is convincing as a manservant who’s proud of doing his job well yet itching for the chance to be in charge of other people for a change. The third member of the cast, Celeste Arias, has a slight, frail figure, used to great advantage when she turns out to be the strongest and most level-headed character by the play’s end.
Miss Julie is such a straightforward, economically told story that there are certain parts of it which stand out by how directors and designers choose to interpret them. Is the interlude during which Julie and Jean go onstage to quell their passions seen as festive or fraught? Is their discussion deeply personal or more theoretical? How important is Julie’s pet bird? Chris Bannow makes strong clear choices throughout this production, and his vision is well served by a powerful and most capable cast.
This Miss Julie doesn’t need chilling before serving. It’s works nicely a balmy summer basement.