A trio of great actors makes this remake remarkable
|Strawdog Theatre Company presents|
|After Miss Julie|
Review by Clint May
Downton Abbey this is not.
Don’t let Mike Mroch’s very lovely and immersive English country estate kitchen lull you into a false sense of security. Patrick Marber’s update of August Strindberg’s famous 1888 Miss Julie—moved out of 19th century Sweden—is a frenetic, well-nigh-hysterical culture clash with none of the Upstairs, Downstairs stiff-upper-lipness we might expect in a proper manor house.
Written first for television and adapted for the stage in 2003, Marber brings the same cast of characters to the night. A culture clash of epic proportions plays out in microsom as a “love” affair reaches the boiling point. As staged at Strawdog and directed by Elly Green, After Miss Julie is an intermittently successful replantation of Strindberg’s themes.
Miss Julie (Maggie Scrantom) is the young daughter of His Lordship and quite the little barnstormer. Cavorting with the “lower” classes that run her father’s estate at a Midsummer party, she’s decided to whirl dervishly into the crosshairs of the upwardly-aspiring chauffeur John (John Henry Roberts). She’s acutely aware that her way of life is an antiquated relic on the downslide while John and those like him represent the future by virtue of their having aspirations. One of the many tragedies is that John’s big dream—updated from a hotel to a swanky NYC nightclub—is pathetic and doomed. Even with all her fading promise, the lithe and ferocious Julie is everything John’s would-be fiancé, the sturdy working-class Christine (Anita Deely), is not.
After Miss Julie is a study in schizophrenic dischord. Marber may be updating a famously naturalistic piece, but the tone of After becomes increasingly Pinteresque as it runs its short length. If, as some historians claim, the World Wars was the West’s failed attempt at suicide (and that’s a recurrent desire in After), then John and Julie become absurdist avatars with Marber’s time displacement and their sadomasochistic attraction a brutal commentary. Like Pinter’s The Dumb Waiter, the servant’s phone impersonally attaches John to an invisible lord whose commands he is compelled to obey, while flirtations in the midst of a snoozing Christine recall The Homecoming. By making John a WWII veteran maneuvered back to the estate for a “weak chest,” Marber is able to add yet another thematic layer to the schism.
Director Green coaxes some great performances from the small cast, keeping their chemistry well-balanced in what could easily spiral out of control. Scrantom makes her Strawdog debut with a mesmerizing tour de force. I first saw her in Women Beware Women by Two Pence and was thrilled to see her power let loose here. Her entire body seems to constantly writhe like a bed of snakes as her tormented psyche engulfs those around her, and a genuine fire burns behind her eyes. She puts the ‘manic’ in Manic Pixie Dream Girl, and like all such characters, she is outwardly absorbing and inwardly hollow, an effect Scrantom sells with gusto. She pushes and pulls John with equal force and sometimes at the exact same moment. No less absorbing is Roberts. If Julie is empty potential, John plays his servant as a man with all the true potential in the world but with so much Pavlovian conditioning working against his ability to express it. Deely is perhaps the most British of the three, and it appears her part has been expanded by Marber, and it showcases her abilities wonderfully as such. The moment she drops her façade is utterly heartrending. Green is not afraid of a prolonged beat of silence or stillness, unnerving in the midst of so much heady dialogue.
Having not seen the original Miss Julie, I had to settle for one of the many very faithful movie adaptations that are nearly word-for-word Strindberg’s script. It became a game of “What’s different?” and then “What was Marber’s intent in changing this?” If you didn’t know the other existed, would After Miss Julie stand alone? That’s debatable for this critic—I didn’t see enough divergence to merit the update, and what divergence I did see felt shoehorned in after seeing the original. What Strindberg left to our imagination, Marber makes much more explicit. Without giving away a spoiler, the handling of the final 10-15 minutes alters the stakes and actually pulls the air out of all that’s been built up; After lands with a whimper and not a blow. After Miss Julie feels a bit like fan-fiction an author would typically stash in their drawer after writing.
Strawdog’s theme this season is The Tipping Point—the pivotal moments when things may change (I’m not sure that’s a winnowing thematic idea as that encompasses most drama), and the themes of either Julie would seem to serve just as well, though perhaps it is just that increased heavy handedness that made this work more appealing than its progenitor. Regardless of reasons, the performances alone make this a recommendable work and a vigorous start to the Strawdog season.
After Miss Julie continues through September 26th at Strawdog Theatre, 3829 N. Broadway (map), with performances Thursdays-Saturdays at 8pm Sundays 4pm. Tickets are $28, and are available by phone (773-528-9696) or online through OvationTix.com (check for half-price tickets at Goldstar.com). More information at Strawdog.org. (Running time: 90 minutes without intermission)
Photos by Chris Ocken
behind the scenes
Elly Green (director), Mike Mroch (scenic designer), Heath Hays (sound design), Brittany Dee Bodley (costume designer), Claire Chrzan (light designer), Jamie Karas (props designer), Adam Goldstein (dialect coach), Emmaline Keddy-Hector (production manager), Emily Dillard (stage manager), Cassandra Rose (dramaturg), Chris Ocken, Ocken Photography (photos)