August Strindberg was a true renaissance man. Over the course of four decades, he wrote over 60 plays and 30 works of fiction. Always open to experimentation, he created plays that were naturalistic and challenging, frequently challenging the notion that aristocrats, by birthright, were automatically superior to the lower classes.
Miss Julie, written in 1888, takes up that disparity as its topic. Indeed, power is exchanged many times during the course of the play. Julie, the daughter of a count, anxious to shake off conservative social mores, attends the servants’ Midsummer dance. The action takes place in the kitchen of the manor owned by her father, an unseen but powerful character. There, she flirts with his footman, Jean, who is cultured and well-traveled, while Jean’s simple fiancee, the family’s cook, stands idly by and sometimes sleeps.
Jean reluctantly obeys Julie’s wishes to dance with her, but it’s clear that he’s seething about his circumstances. The other servants are equally appalled to see Julie mixing with the lower class, and they approach the manor, singing a mocking song. Jean takes Julie into his bedroom, allegedly to protect her, but it is clear the following morning that they’ve had sex, and now he has the upper hand. Unable to return to her former life, Julie begs him to run away with her, but he tries to convince her to commit suicide as the only way out.
Strindberg is tough going under any circumstances. His prose is blunt and not particularly lyrical, and the production currently playing at the Stella Adler Theater in Hollywood actually throws in even more roadblocks to Miss Julie‘s accessibility.
Alain Villeneuve (Jean) is from Montreal, Yaitza Rivera (Miss Julie) is of Puerto Rican descent, and Laetitia Mariana (Christine) is from Corsica. They all retain the accents from their home countries, and I don’t mean that as a negative, but it frequently made it difficult to understand what they were saying. The rhythms of their various tongues and accents on syllables are different than the American vernacular, which added an additional challenge.
There are effective moments in the production. Julie’s panic at being trapped between two worlds is well-realized by Rivera, and Villeneuve registers when he’s mocking the aristocrat. Stan Harrington’s direction is efficient, but the set design by Villeneuve is dark, candlelit, and overly busy, emphasizing the dreariness of the material. And the three-character play relies heavily on music and crowd sounds to suggest the party that’s going on outside the kitchen walls.
Miss Julie runs through December 4th on Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. at the Studio C Theatre at Stella Adler, 6773 Hollywood Boulevard. Reservations can be made online or by calling (323) 465-4446.