nytheatre.com review by Stan Richardson
May 14, 2005
Witnessing August Strindberg’s 1888 play Miss Julie is like taking a bubble bath with your blow dryer. Or so it is with Rattlestick Theatre’s new production. First and foremost, credit should go to Craig Lucas for his new translation which is as silky as a warm bath—that is, until an electrical appliance splashes through the surface, and that tub becomes a frying pan.
Miss Julie is a play of constant reversals, as incremental as a falling elevator. It is the midsummer night’s festival and fiances Jean, the butler, and Kristine, the cook, are listing off to one another a litany of their mistress’s reputation-tarnishing behavior. A perfect example of this is Miss Julie’s insistence that Jean come upstairs and dance with her, a sight that will only cause people to “talk.” Later, when Kristine goes to sleep, the fickle Miss Julie initiates a more daring dance: seducing Jean to her and then reprimanding him away. The other servants get wind of their interaction and, drunkenly caterwauling a vulgar song about the lady and her servant, they descend into the servants' quarters. While the mob turns the place upside down, Jean hides Miss Julie in his room and she makes good on her flirtation.
When they emerge, things have changed. Sex and Violence, the great equalizers (after Time, of course), have rendered their social status meaningless. In addition to a shattered sense of status, the two are in big trouble: her reputation (and her father’s) may be irreparably damaged by her class-less indiscretion; he, on the other hand, could verily lose his fiancee and his livelihood if this transgression is brought to light.
The second success of Rattlestick’s production is the superb work of director Anders Cato and his indefatigably mutable cast—Marin Hinkle, Reg Rogers, and Julia Gibson—in the archetypal roles of Miss Julie, Jean and Kristine, respectively.
Hinkle’s Miss Julie vacillates so between imperious and imperiled that I couldn’t decide if I wanted her good name saved or her good neck snapped. As Kristine, Gibson begins with a sweet modesty and ends with a steely piety; her power drill of a diatribe at Jean, not for his infidelity, but for “forgetting his place,” is one of the more breathtaking moments in this ninety-minute bullet of a play. Rogers, as Jean, starts as a pinball smacked between the women, and morphs into a wrecking ball that, once set in motion, can only be stopped when one or both are destroyed.
The third success of Rattlestick’s production is the physical world itself: a pristine servants' kitchen with a hulky hunk of meat hanging on one side and, standing in the middle of the floor, a tall pair of black boots (Miss Julie’s father's, and his disapproving presence is consequently felt throughout). This is John McDermott’s evocative set, sensitively/sinisterly lit by Ed McCarthy. Scott Killian’s sound design creates a convincing world without and his original music suggests the turbulent world within. Olivera Gajic’s costumes can turn from prim-and-proper to down-and-dirty with just one rip: Miss Julie is in tatters by the end of play (perhaps it is appropriate to mention here that Rick Sordelet’s fight choreography is as elegant and visceral as any other element in this production).
The menacing (indeed, often violent) way of its characters makes Miss Julie shocking, but it is the brutal words they use to denigrate one another is what truly stuns. Craig Lucas’ superb translation, brought to thrilling life by Rattlestick Theatre, is so conductive to Strindberg’s linguistic-electricity, allowing English-speaking audiences to truly feel the jolt of it all. Don’t miss it.