Yale Repertory Theatre, New Haven
It is the Victorian world (or rather, in this case, the Swedish world) of the 19th century, a time when few challenged the rigid boundaries of class or sex. Servants and women alike knew their place. Thus the Swedish playwright August Strindberg sets the stage for a royal battle between servants and masters, men and women.
In “Miss Julie,” Strindberg’s naturalistic drama now at the Yale Rep, a woman dares to cross those lines. Not that Strindberg has any sympathy for his heroine—or for women in general, as it happens (if one were to read the biography of this misogynist). He makes Miss Julie pay dearly for her transgressions.
Miss Julie is the daughter of a count, who has her eye on her father’s valet (Jean). A rash, imperial woman, she has been raised as a feminist before the era of feminists had arrived. Moreover, she spouts—and acts out—democratic ideals for which her servants have no appreciation. On the contrary, she loses face by treating them as equals.
“…I’m hired to work, not to be your playmate,” Jean tells Julie, as she taunts him sexually. “I wouldn’t be a good one anyway, I have too much self-respect.”
The play, observing the classical unities of time and place, takes place entirely in the estate’s kitchen and all on Midsummer’s Eve. But it is a far different tale than that of Shakespeare’s diverting comedy, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” Strindberg creates a world, not of fantasy, but of gritty reality. No one creates more terrifying battles of the sexes than Strindberg, long before Albee’s “Virginia Woolf” appeared on the scene.
The current offering is an English adaptation by playwright Richard Nelson (who is Yale School of Drama’s newly-appointed chair of Playwriting), an adaptation that is, at times, too colloquial for its own good. Moreover, this production, under the direction of Liz Diamond (who chairs the School’s Directing Program), is one of mixed blessings.
On the plus side, Diamond has chosen to set the kitchen below ground level, so that characters leave by climbing the stairs—and passers-by can look through high-set windows upon the events below. Thus, with this metaphor, Diamond drives home the class distinctions.
And in bringing the Midsummer Eve festivities, with its drunken revelers, right into the kitchen, Diamond turns it into a veritable orgy, a sexual free-for-all (choreographed explicitly by Peter Pucci), thus powerfully underscoring Miss Julie’s own downfall.
On the other hand, Diamond’s cast choices are disappointing. Yvonne Woods plays Miss Julie more as a self-conscious schoolgirl with an elocution assignment, a carefully-prepared lesson. She lacks the force and sweep of this headstrong heroine, and when her downfall comes, it is more of a tumble than a drop into the abyss.
Peter Macon, as Jean, is also an unlikely choice. One expects this charismatic character whom women cannot resist to be more suave, dapper, slim. And though Macon has powerful moments when he spars with Woods, he comes on more as a tackle making the first down than as a skillful seducer of women.
Only Marissa Copeland, the third member of this ménage a trois, sounds just the right note. As the family cook and Jean’s lover (Christine), she clearly knows what she is about, and gives a solid grounding to the drama.
So much for the pros and cons of this “Miss Julie.” The fact is that Strindberg played an important role in ushering in the era of modern theater, and, whatever the problems of this production, Diamond and company must be commended for bringing this Swedish playwright to Yale Rep audiences.
-- Irene Backalenick
Mar. 25, 2005