nytheatre.com review by Lauren Marks
May 12, 2005
Julie, produced by Theatre-Arts Connection, is an adaptation of Strindberg’s realist classic, Miss Julie. David I.L. Poole’s show relocates Miss Julie to a surrealist landscape of a remote Stockholm island, and incorporates text from Shakespeare, Charles Mee, and Nordic mythology.
Julie is an ambitious production. Strindberg’s play alone is demanding, and Poole’s company sets an extremely high goal for themselves in taking on extra work in the textual additions and their visual aesthetic. In their own words, “T-AC’s Julie is a re-imagined surrealistic assemblage that borders on art installation and vivid tableaux vivant.”
Julie is the story of the wealthy daughter of a Count who, in his absence, begins a dangerous affair with her father’s servant Jean. Jean is engaged to another servant of the household, Christine, but has lusted after Miss Julie (and the her aristocratic life) since he was a child. Once Julie initiates the affair, she finds herself trapped by Jean’s deception and cruelty—and by her conflicting longings to be loved and in control.
The design—not unlike an art installation, as the company suggests—is a major component of the production. The set is surrealist, complete with a blue-black checked floor that is uprooted and replaced by the characters depending on their mood. It's interesting to look at, extending into the seats of the house, making the servants not only visible there at all times, but also on the same level as the audience. But it seemed to me to be mostly ineffective in terms of giving the audience information about the world of the play.
The costumes are convincingly period, but strangely not subject to the same symbolic treatment as the sets. The sound design is filled with water and waves, highlighting the director’s decision to place this production on an island, but very little else suggests that this relocation has happened, from a Swedish kitchen to a tiny isolated land mass.
Strindberg's naturalism is not abandoned completely in this performance, but is diffused by additions to the text and choreographed surrealistic interchanges. The actors’ intentions to each other are unclear, and sometimes their actions seem unmotivated, In some moments, the actors relate to each other in the same time and in the same scene. In other moments they are visually and symbolically assembled, as in a dance or a picture, transplanting them from realistic time and space. Indeed, this production often seems more concerned with assembling "snapshots" than bringing the play together as a whole.
The performers deal with the objects on stage (mirrors, clothing, beer and bread) more than they deal with each other, making the connection between Jean and Julie hard to fully glean. Their relationship comes across as ambiguously angry and vague rather than sexually charged and hierarchically complicated. Catherine McNelis, who plays Christine, Julie’s cook and Jean’s lover, does infuse this production with some moments of dynamism and clarity. McNelis captures Christine’s religious fervor with unexpected clarity. She escapes seeming simple or fanatical. In this world of confused symbols, Christine’s devotion to her principles make her the easiest character to relate to in Julie. McNelis also seems most comfortable with the moments of surrealist and non-naturalistic story telling. She is steady and convincing as the wronged lover, and the voice or moral authority.
Not much insight is gained by the splicing of other texts into the Strindberg. The story of Miss Julie is, for the most part, unchanged here. With a few exceptions, the extra texts only hinder the momentum of the greater play. They tend to be recognizable (as from Macbeth) and a little distracting from the topic at hand.
What is probably most lost in this production is Strindberg’s subtlety. His carefully crafted revelations of his characters and their complicated motives are not totally tended to by this Julie. The design-centric production is a little too heavy handed and explicit, and the quieter themes of the play are lost.
Of course, Julie is not claiming to be Strindberg’s original play. It aims at something a little different. In fact, T-AC states their interest clearly: “[Later in life] there was a shift in Strindberg’s writing style. Strindberg wrote [his] later works within a ‘dream logic’... In this new adaptation of Julie, T-AC has tried to achieve his later style.” The concept of doing one of Strindberg’s early works in his later style is an interesting one, but proves itself a truly complicated undertaking. Julie is a somewhat troubled production, never exactly realizing itself as an art installation or as a play. It doesn’t quite find its voice but is full of strong intentions and bold artistic choices.