Before Stanley and Blanche and George and Martha, there was Julie and Jean.
The leads in Swedish playwright August Strindberg's gripping psychodrama Miss Julie set the pattern for modern stage couples who take turns ripping great bloody chunks from each other's psyches. The play is considered a seminal work not just for its psychological intensity, but for its sexual frankness (it was the first modern play to refer directly to menstruation), and for its clear-eyed look at class relationships. A Streetcar Named Desire, one of many plays that traces its lineage to Miss Julie, has been called "Strindberg with a Southern drawl."
Now, all of that is no doubt helpful if you're cramming for the foreign-service exam, but what does it mean to the discriminating boulevardier seeking good value for his or her entertainment dollar?
A lot, as this production by Kitchen Dog Theater at the McKinney Avenue Contemporary amply demonstrates. More than 100 years since its first public performance in 1892, Miss Julie still grabs the gut and engages the mind long after the actors take their bows.
The play concerns the aristocratic Julie; Jean, her father's valet; and Christine, the family cook. On Midsummer Eve, a night of revelry in Sweden, Julie forgets her station and dances with the servants. In a fey mood, she also engages in a provocative flirtation with Jean, a self-possessed, amoral manservant several years her senior. The result is disastrous for them both.
"I myself find the joy of life in its strong and cruel struggles," Strindberg once said, and his taste for brutal conflict certainly shows here. The dialogue and the situations in Miss Julie reflect the pioneering naturalism that Strindberg and his noted Norwegian contemporary, Henrik Ibsen, helped bring to modern theater. The play works on a deeper, metaphoric level as well through the use of objects with symbolic overtones, such as the master's black boots, a caged canary, wine, and a straight razor, and through the use of ambiguous, suggestive language.
Though Julie and Jean appear to have little in common at first, they eventually recognize a common bond that both attracts and repulses them. Both characters sense that they are trapped in predestined coils fashioned by heredity, class, and sex. Both struggle against their fates with little regard for morality, but only Julie has the intellectual and physical courage to take control of her destiny.
As befits one of Strindberg's "chamber plays," Kitchen Dog's production is spare and intimate, with all the action taking place in a single, protracted act sans intermission. Director Rene Moreno has wisely chosen not to dicker with the play's original setting or period, and he sticks closely to Strindberg's stage directions. The play has a remarkably contemporary feel, so there is little need to update it for today's audiences. Andy Fitch's pared-down set grounds the action in a solid, prosaic kitchen while leaving enough air and space to emphasize the ethereal qualities in Julie's personality.
It is Julie, of course, who poses the enduring enigma of the play. The reasons for her sense of entrapment, her feyness, and her desperation may seem elusive. It helps to know that Strindberg poured quite a bit of himself into the character. Like Julie, Strindberg was the child of a misalliance. His father was a man of aristocratic pretensions, his mother a maid who married just in time to prevent Strindberg from being born a bastard. The playwright attributed his conflicting desire for both enlightenment and moral abasement to the mixture of upper- and lower-class influences he had been subjected to as a boy.
Like Julie, Strindberg came to loathe the opposite sex, yet he could never free himself from sexual feelings. He saw himself as an outcast, an Ishmael, whose chances for understanding, love, and fulfillment in this world were negligible.
Julie is a subtle and demanding role, which Texas Tech alumna Lisa Peterson handles adroitly. One doesn't want to feel too sorry for Julie, which can happen if the actress playing her is overly pathetic. The character is, after all, an aristocrat who has an aristocrat's contempt for the lower classes. Though driven to despair, she also has a great deal of strength and resolution. Indeed, in one scene in which she clutches a gory knife, Julie is revealed to have the stick-at-nothing fortitude of the heroines of Viking saga. Peterson reflects these sterner qualities while also capturing the audience's sympathy.
Jean is a less complicated character, though still a fully realized one. A valet with a nobleman's style and panache, he is nevertheless saddled with a servant's soul. His dreams of advancement amount to nothing more than proprietorship of an inn, a prospect indescribably dismal to Julie.
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The challenge in portraying this character is to capture both the mannerisms of Old World courtliness and the ingrained deference of a man born to servitude. Neither of these behaviors is much on display in the egalitarian United States, making Jean a tough assignment for American actors. Daniel Murray certainly has the physicality for the part, but he is an actor rooted in Americanisms. Rarely diabolical, he seems more like a pernicious American teen: Eddie Haskell in livery.
Shelly Tharp provides able support as the cook, Christine. A barometer of middle-class morality, she is shocked by the example Miss Julie is setting for the servants. Her piety, however, is rooted in arrogance.
The world of Miss Julie may be an ugly and amoral one, but it's all the more fascinating for that. Like a vicious domestic dispute, it's not pretty, but it keeps you riveted.
Miss Julie runs through February 4 at the McKinney Avenue Contemporary. Call 871-