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A CurtainUp Review
Miss Julie

One of the things that peaked my interest in The Pearl Theatre Company's production of Strindberg's Miss Julie is a note by the person responsible for it, Christopher Martin. (The note appeared in The Pearl's "Playgoer's Supplement", which is mailed to subscribers and others on the theater's mailing list, but also freely available to passers-by on a stand outside the theater). Martin not only directed the play, he also translated it, served as "scenographer" and even composed the sometimes startling music. Here's what he said that intrigued me: "In translating Froken Julie, I was struck once again by how direct and spare Strindberg's Swedish is, how immediate and contemporary."

I've resisted Strindberg, I confess, because I've thought of his plays as "anything but. . ." As "modern" as these plays may be in content and even approach, their turgidity always turned me away from them. Martin thinks he can explain:

"We are accustomed to his plays in an English which seems florid and Victorian, long-winded and expository, without sounding the least naturalistic — a problem often faced with classics translated by those whose specialty lies more in language than in the theatre."

So, has Martin given Miss Julie a makeover or has he restored her to her original condition? Probably a little of both. This classic of Sweden's Shakespeare might now feel comfortable entitled The Cook, The Thief, Their Boss and His Daughter.

It is tempting to think of class distinctions as an accepted fact-of-life in the 19th Century, and also to think of those 19th Century types as oblivious to what we now call "women's issues." Miss Julie debunks both notions. Misogynistic and probably just plain crazy, Strindberg nonetheless fearlessly cuts a wide swath across socio-sexual issues. He's likely less out of step today than he was outrageous a century ago.

Miss Julie is less about people than about forces. Wild, conflicted and confused, Julie defies simple explanation. The daughter of an aristocrat, she has a penchant for downward mobility; thus she prefers a good beer to a fine wine, and her sexual energy is directed toward her father's servant, Jean (Tom Spackman) instead of some blue blood.) But rarely has the theater witnessed a person who shifts course more abruptly. Everyone and everything is on a collision course but none more than Julie with herself. Hers is a tragic story, but many choices vie as the source of her despair. There are no neat answers here.

Hope Chernov's Julie is indeed a force to be reckoned with. She reins in Julie just enough to provide a series of clear signals, but not so much that she sheds her volatility. It may well be her finest performance ever at The Pearl. This despite the fact that Strindberg has written Julie more as an energy field than a character in the conventional sense, thus leaving few hooks for an audience's emotional attachment.

Ultimately, Julie is a study in contradictions set in motion. Professing that her "tastes are simple," she shortly realizes "it must be dreadful to be poor". Born against her mother's wishes, she nonetheless is driven to follow her mother's mandate to be no man's slave. She uses social class as an antidote to the predicament of her sexual caste, but confronting a life from which there's "no way out," she depends on her servant to tell her what she has to do. "Orders," she learns, "are always unkind."

Tom Spackman is very satisfying as the upwardly aspiring Jean who must reconcile the love and dreams Julie represents for him with the Scandanavian sensibility of his fiancée, Kristin (Ginger Grace). In reaction to Chernov's Julie, his rudder seems firmly planted, yet he is no less conflicted. He is a proud servant, but he also dreams: "I just might end up a count." Ms. Grace is quietly compelling as the straight-edged cook, exploiting every opportunity for physical acting Strindberg and the director have afforded her.

All of this is set against a enormous bright white tile kitchen thatwould send shivers coursing through the body of anyone who has ever attempted a renovation project. Combined with its intense, unnerving, often dramatic sound design, this Miss Julie remains robust throughout.

by August Strindberg 
Directed by Christopher Martin 
starring Hope Chernov and Tom Spackman 
with Ginger Grace 
Scenography by Christopher Martin 
Costume Design by Barbara A. Bell 
Lighting Design by Stephen Petrilli 
The Pearl Theatre, 80 Saint Marks Place (212) 598-9802 
Opened April 20, 1998 Closes May 17, 1998 
Reviewed by Les Gutman 4/21/98

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