The Cruelty of Miss Julie 

New staging at Aurora Theatre makes it hard to tell who's on top.

Social class was a slippery thing for Swedish playwright August Strindberg, who grew up in abject poverty, one of thirteen children born to a servant and a shipping clerk. He may in some ways have resembled Jean, the well-spoken footman who seduces a Count's daughter in Strindberg's 1888 play Miss Julie, now playing at Berkeley's Aurora Theatre. Both were sharp, rebellious men who understood the durability of class barriers, but refused to merely accept their lot. The ever-incorrigible Strindberg was, in fact, always imperiling his own fragile position. Educated in a middle-class private school and at the University of Uppsala, he easily gained membership in the upper echelons of Swedish society — a place he obviously never felt comfortable. He ruined three marriages with women of good stock, and wrote a spate of radical, anarchic plays about class and gender struggles. Miss Julie was Strindberg's tour de force. It scandalized his contemporaries in 1888, and, when acted well, it can still scandalize an audience in 2009.

The plot of Miss Julie is a pretty basic allegory: A valet trying to sleep his way up encounters an aristocrat trying to sleep her way down. They dance together at a Midsummer's Eve celebration, then retreat to the kitchen for a long, heated flirtation right in front of the cook Christine, who is the valet's fiancé. Animated by the dance, Miss Julie (Lauren Grace) wants to prolong her escapist fantasy by toying with Jean (Mark Anderson Phillips), who responds in kind — probably because he sees her as the gatekeeper who will pluck him from working-class drudgery and fulfill his dreams of being an innkeeper. Yet both are ambivalent. She exploits her position by commanding him to put on the Count's jacket, to join her for another dance, even to kiss her shoe — all the while telling him to "forget about rank." He cautiously accepts, but takes note of the impropriety, even telling her that the other servants are pointing fingers and singing a song to mock them. Only after a lot of deception and alcohol does he coax her into his bedroom. That's when the drama really begins.

Strindberg was astute enough to realize that class never really trumps gender — in fact, the two are roughly equivalent. Miss Julie has a certain coarseness that defies her social strata. She drinks full glasses of beer in one gulp, climbs on top of the kitchen table (and later lies under it), and enjoys messing about with the rabble. Perhaps she's trying to gain acceptance in the working class by masquerading as one of them. Or perhaps, as Miss Julie claims, she was raised as a tomboy and never quite got it out of her system. Either way, she looks like a minstrel overcompensating for her differences with Jean, who at many points gets the upper-hand.

In Aurora's production — based on a brilliant translation by Helen Cooper — the differences between Jean and Miss Julie get as much traction as their similarities. Thus the actors appear to constantly be jockeying for position. Grace and Phillips spar with their eyes, using subtle shifts in gaze to indicate who's on top at any given moment. Their chemistry is underscored by sexy classical music, recorded for this production by the Real Vocal String Quartet. But it's also communicated through tense, protracted silences. Beth Deitchman's cook Christine is the lowest character, class-wise, but also the sturdiest; her face remains firm and placid to conceal her animosity toward Miss Julie. The play's cruelest moment happens when Deitchman creeps into the kitchen in the middle of the night to overhear Jean and Julie tussling in his bedroom. It's a violent example of forced voyeurism, apparently added in by Cooper or director Mark Jackson. In the original version their affair is merely implied, even though it's the central event in the play.

All three actors are quite canny, and able to inhabit a world with no real moral center. (Even Christine, who accepts bribes from other servants and has a temper tantrum toward the play's end, is no virtuous sufferer.) Still, it's Grace who really carries this production. Beautiful in a sharp, icy way, she makes her face hard and drawn and turns her eyes into tiny knife-points. She's the "slut" in this drama, but her gaze is chilling and utterly void of sensuality. Even when she and Jean are about to kiss for the first time, she looks more like a blood-sucking spider than a bedazzled young woman, so it's no surprise when she pulls back and slaps him instead.

Phillips makes his character the lusty one, flinging a cleaver about as he talks or rabidly kissing Miss Julie's shoe. He's a striver, obviously, and a rather malicious one at that. But Phillips' Jean also has a certain fragility that belies the character's ambitions. He has weird intonation and over-enunciates his Ts. He shines his master's boots with a kind of dutiful pride. That could be an intentional way of emphasizing Jean's class-consciousness, but it also makes him seem a little too dorky to be the ultimate cause of Miss Julie's comeuppance. All in all, Miss Julie seems more befouled by her own mistakes than by the actions of a predatory servant. She shifts the play from a power struggle to a tale of self-immolation. When Miss Julie finally reaches her tragic end, you'll feel as if you've spent a whole night, drinking, carousing, and messing up along with her.


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