August Strindberg’s Miss Julie, the second offering of the Yale Summer Cabaret’s “Summer of Giants,” finds the Cab even more surprisingly naturalistic than in their production of Tartuffe. Kate Noll’s set is a wonder. If you’ve been to the Cab more than once, you know that the space tends to rely on a lot of make-believe in turning the basement space into anything approaching a “real place.” Not so here: the kitchen where all the action happens has the kind of “below stairs” look we’ve all gotten to know from Downton Abbey or (for elders) Masterpiece Theater.

And why not? Miss Julie is a masterpiece by a master. Strindberg doesn’t pull any punches and he knows exactly what he’s doing every step of the way. What we might find mystifying, not living in a rigid, class-bound society where a lady dancing with a lackey at a Midsummer’s Festival can cause tongues to wag, his text spells out for us. We get, right off, that Julie (Ceci Fernandez) is young and contemptuous of social niceties. She might even believe in sexual democracy, which is to say that if a guy is good-looking and can dance, does it matter that he’s her father’s bootblack? Well, no, we say, being so egalitarian ourselves and all. Yeah, right, we say, realistic about such things, even in 21st century America.

And that is very much Strindberg’s point. Doesn’t matter when and where you live, hypocrisy is pretty much the stitching in the social fabric. We all pay lip service to ideals we’ll never live by and, when others live by them, we get profoundly uneasy. “Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”? If even some members of our Supreme Court can’t get with that, than how so the landed gents of 19th century Sweden? Julie is stirring things up—just to stir them up, we might say—and, as the adage says, “play with fire, get burned.”

What she stirs, among other things, is a cauldron of sexual feelings, above-his-station longings, and even tender memories of her childhood in the breast of Jean (Mitchell Winter), a house servant.

And as another adage says “Where there’s smoke, there’s fire.” Is there really fire between Julie and Jean? That’s where directing and acting choices matter, to let us know whether or not we should believe these two, after coupling, are meant to be a couple. At times they do make sounds that suggest they might actually believe in each other, but…

As director Chris Bannow presents it, our Julie (Ceci Fernandez) is the type who can cry on cue, but also the type who can be genuinely shocked, and even hurt. By giving us a somewhat tender and even desperate Julie, Bannow and company tip the sympathy toward her, even if there is a certain “serves her right” view available, not least because she seduces Jean away beneath the dozing nose of his girl of his own class, Kristin, the cook (Celeste Arias).

The possible ethical and social dimension between the women, we might say—today—is where Strindberg slips a little, and that would be true if the two women were anything like “equals.” But when Julie nearly invites Kristin to run away with her and Jean, it’s not exactly a ménage à trois she has in mind (though such was not unheard of among the free-love types of Strindberg’s day, and he lets us hang fire a bit as to how “scandalous” this modern woman is willing to be). Rather, Julie sees, it seems, a life of togetherness as Mistress, Man, and Menial. The idea even makes her giggle.

Fernandez is a mercurial actress and so she has the requisite skills to render a Julie who, if not a mess of contradictions, is at least charmed by her own headstrongness while also abashed by it, and excited by Jean’s boldness while contemptuous of everything about him that makes him less than her social equal. She fans the fire if only to see how close her fingers can get before they’re burnt.

Much falls upon Mitchell Winter as Jean. He has to be believable as the kind of man a lady-in-making might go slumming for, and he has to have qualities that make us want him to be a class hero. All that comes through wonderfully well, thanks to Winter’s ability to convey Jean’s high opinion of himself. His charm is a weapon, though, and we do well not to forget that he—like any man—might be playing with a woman for kicks or even out of a grudge against the powers that be. Winter never comes across as truly malevolent, but he does convincingly seethe and grovel when he has to confront how unequal he is to the heroism expected of him.

And that’s what makes Miss Julie a more twisting tale of the battle of the sexes than found in an older contemporary like, say, Ibsen. The ending shows a terrible restitution of the powers that be, with Kristin prating about the Lord’s forgiveness and Jean acting the lackey because the lord (of the manor) has returned. That leaves Julie to end it all like any melodramatic “ruined woman” or—and that’s the note this production seemed to strike—to walk out “a better where to find.” Is Julie—to use comparison to Ibsen—a Nora or a Hedda? I’ve always thought the latter, but Bannow’s production—and Fernandez’s show of soul—makes me plump for the former.

In any case, this Miss Julie is riveting from start to finish, and its trio of actors fine at the turns on a dime of Strindberg’s script (even Arias’ Kristin has to get from clueless surprise to righteous superiority pretty quickly). It’s the kind of play where it matters not only what is said, but how it’s said, so…pay attention.

 

Miss Julie
By August Strindberg
Directed by Chris Bannow
Translated by Kenneth McLeish

Stage Manager: Rob Chikar; Scenic Designer: Kate Noll; Costume Designer: Seth Bodie; Lighting Designer: Solomon Weisbard; Sound Designer: Jacob Riley; Production Manager/Technical Director: James Lanius; Assistant Technical Director: Joey Moro

June 20-29, 2013

The Yale Summer Cabaret
217 Park Street, New Haven

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