The kitchen of an old country estate: stove at the rear, a long table cuts through the middle of the room. (Like a pagan fetish, a tree hangs upside-down above the table.) On a diagonal axis, the servants’ bedrooms, female and male; cook’s off to one side, the valet’s opposite—like wings in an old theater, to enter and exit. At right angle, beneath an electric bell with telephone to summon the servants upstairs, another entrance, through which comes the sound of fiddles, of a barn dance. It’s Midsummer’s Eve. The master is away from home; his daughter dances with the peasants.
So lies the setting at the start of Strindberg’s Miss Julie, directed by Mark Jackson at the Aurora, from an adaptation by Helen Cooper. Much of what happens onstage—between just three characters, though others never seen are felt as presences—seems to be in real time, about society, class distinctions and hatred, sexual mores in late 19th century Scandinavia. So the play is often dubbed Naturalistic.
But Strindberg, one of the greatest innovators of the newly-modern theater, borrowed throughout his career from many forms, reaching back to the Baroque for his History Plays (seldom performed in America), to the poetic theater of the Romantics and Symbolists for his Dream Plays, cannibalizing novels, erotica, French “well-wrought” drama (whence came the commercial screenplay), and back to Medieval Morality and Miracle Plays for his Inferno period, and that Northern European dark carnival, the Dance of Death.
(As quoted in the program, Strindberg said it himself: “My characters are conglomerations of past and present stages of civilization ... patched together as is the human soul.” A Euripidean—even Shakespearean—sense.)
The carnival here, though, is only heard offstage, as the lower classes celebrate the season with sexual provocativeness. David Graves’ music keys it in well, as do his more reflective tones on strings and keyboard in the intimate chamber of the kitchen, where time seems to float, to get tangled up in pauses and long looks, to change the very color of the air as the three come out with their emotions and secrets, peaking with a slow dance on the kitchen table as if on stage, ending in a deadly game of hypnosis, of self-hypnosis.
Miss Julie is the natural daughter of the master of the estate, torn between her father’s patriarchial uprightness and her late mother’s radical bluestocking tendencies. Grown-up tomboy, she teases Jean the valet, orders him to put on her father’s jacket and dance with her. (The jacket, her father’s boots Jean is to polish, the bell above the door—all hang over his head like a riding crop.) Her provocativeness upsets the apple cart between Jean and his intended, shrewd, churchgoing Christina the cook. And it stirs Jean’s deepest desires and ambitions, a young man from poorest peasant, not servant, stock.
All this is played out in a chamber, a cube into which light and sound descend, as it were, and into and out of which the three characters appear and disappear like the figures in an illustrated book, dreamlike in the way sharp line drawings are. The designers contribute much to this mood—Guilio Cesare Perrone’s set; Heather Basarab’s lights; Fumiko Bielefeldt’s costumes.
The action within the room feels at times like that of figures in a music box. The dramatic action seems within the story, or to arise from it as illustration, the characters contained within the illustrated figures.
The actors work well. Lauren Grace as Miss Julie reminds Aurora goers of her role in The Master Builder—maybe it’s time for her to play Hedda Gabler, Ibsen’s answer to Strindberg by appropriating “his” kind of woman. Beth Deitchman’s Christine is alert, pert even, when called for, having the sense of a witness, someone who sees and hears without acting on what she witnesses. But she has her moments (as when she lays into Jean while “straightening out” the kitchen) and chooses them. Grace is an unusual actress, mostly seen on North Bay stages.
Mark Anderson Phillips is best as Jean in his brooding glances, gazing at the unapproachable or looking for an opening; now like a whipped dog, now like the dog’s master. Opening night, his dynamics, his rhythm—especially vocal—tended to be pushed, distracting from the texture. There’s unquestionably chemistry between him and Grace, especially in the pauses, the glances (a little reminiscent of Pinter, a student of Strindberg’s style).
Overall, there was this kind of flattening; the action didn’t completely find a motor within. Jackson—and Helen Cooper, in her translation, which takes some of Strindberg’s great mastery of offstage, ambiguous, action, making it explicit—simplifies it somewhat, painted in broad strokes.
Jackson seems interested in the relation between narrative, storytelling—and spectacle. The tableaux are often the thing, more than the transitions, as the dreamlike dance on the kitchen table, Jean brushing aside the tree’s branches above, then shaking himself, as if awake.
These figures call to mind storybook illustrations, Anime even. It would be interesting to watch him stage Dickens—or, more American, Winesburg, Ohio, which Sherwood Anderson originally titled “The Book of the Grotesque.”
It’s a fascinating experiment, searching for stylization, which Gilbert Sorrentino described in Jack Spicer’s poetry as “an art at once subservient to, and dominant over, a set of ideas”—or Meyerhold, who Jackson’s studied, characterized as “The Grotesque: Triumph of Form over Content.” Not yet stylized—a difficult thing, when you look at traditional theaters: Noh, Kabuki, Chinese Opera, even Commedia, Italian Opera and Ballet—the figures can be bland, lack savor (except a whiff of the false naive, when a character knows less than author or audience). They’re not yet personae, that triumph of the classical drama of yore that modern theater and poetry have sought to restore.
But Jackson’s working at it, in his own way. This’s his most challenging production of the past half dozen, possibly because of the encounter with Strindberg. He seems to have Emersonian, even Carlylean, sensibilities. His next project is Faust, Part One, at Shotgun—the great revelation for these English-language masters. It could be for us, too.
8 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday and 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays thorugh May 10 at Aurora Theater, 2081 Addison St. $40-$42. 843-4822. auroratheatre.org.