nytheatre.com review by Loren Noveck
January 6, 2012
Set in the kitchen of a Norwegian country estate, August Strindberg’s 1888 Miss Julie dramatizes a doomed and vicious relationship between the unmarried daughter of the estate’s owner and the owner’s valet—a relationship that transgresses both class boundaries and the proper sexual mores of the time. The parallels to our modern era may not seem obvious, yet writer-director Robert Cucuzza has reworked Strindberg into Cattywampus, a meticulously careful and intriguingly stylized updating of the piece to contemporary America—specifically, the Appalachian fringe of Rust Belt Pennsylvania, wonderfully evoked with local color in the language, an original country-tinged score by Juli Crockett, and line dancing choreographed by Jordana Che Toback. Cattywampus smartly focuses on the class and power dynamics, turning the estate into a failing car dealership on the night of its going-out-of-business party and the master-servant relationship into not only a management-labor one, but into the chasm between manual laborer and owner’s dilettante wife.
Here, Julie is not the nobleman’s daughter but a local rich girl who grows up to marry the “Count,” the nickname for the owner of the local car dealership and a man himself wealthy enough to collect rare and classic cars as a hobby. Donnie is not a personal servant but a local dirt-poor backwoods boy who works as a detailer, spends his spare time restoring a vintage Ford Pinto, and dreams of running a dealership of his own somewhere else, somewhere far away, like Florida. The levels of power and class are delineated with scathing precision: with the Count and his neglected, bored wife at the top; the salesmen—never-seen but partying hard offstage—with their white-collar jobs somewhere in the middle; the detailer—who’s also on call on a seemingly permanent basis to polish the Count’s golf clubs and maintain his personal automobiles—nearer the bottom; and Donnie’s fiancée, Chrissie, who cleans the dealership on the night shift, lower still. Add in the crumbling economy and the imminent failure of the dealership and the probable—though not yet confirmed—loss of Donnie and Chrissie’s jobs, and you’ve got a simmering broth of resentment, fear, anxiety, and rage, all set to erupt when Julie saunters in asking Donnie to come back to the party and dance with her. All three of the actors (Jillian Lauren as Julie, D.J. Mendel as Donnie, and Jenny Greer as Chrissie) keep the tension up and the undercurrents churning.
With the narcoleptic Chrissie only vaguely aware of the currents around her—she’s more concerned with getting Donnie to come to church with her, and then to apply for a job at the post office—Julie and Donnie first dance, then sneak off for a furtive sexual encounter, then hatch a plot to run away together, and then torment and manipulate each other’s deepest anxieties and desires till morning comes, and they have to face the consequences of the night they’ve just spent.
While the contemporary reworking of the class and cultural dynamics worked really well for me, I found the sexual politics a little less resonant. It’s hard to find a modern equivalent to the transgression of an unmarried upper-class noble daughter sneaking off for a roll in the hay with her father’s servant; the combination of adultery, rough sex, and one’s husband’s employee of course has the potential to seriously enrage the husband, but—to me, anyway—doesn’t seem to present the kind of genuine threat to a woman’s entire possible future that characterizes the original, the threat that leads Julie to her ultimate unhappy fate. Here, it may well be Donnie who’s putting himself more at risk of consequences from his sexual actions—from his employer, from his fiancée—but yet it’s still Julie who pays the price.
By raising the economic stakes for Julie—her way of life is in danger already, from the failure of her husband’s business, and if on top of that he divorces her, she’ll have nothing—Cucuzza is trying, I think, to underline a motivation for the decisions she ultimately makes. I’m not entirely sure the ending works, but short of taking a last-minute detour away from the source material, I think the choices made here do the best they can.
Overall, I enormously respected and enjoyed the craft involved in rethinking, line by line, a classic into a strong, idiosyncratic modern piece of theater, brought to life by three equally strong and idiosyncratic performances.