In the history of world literature and theater, the dour, dark Swede, August Strindberg, is a giant. His body of work is voluminous: moralities, fantasies, psychological studies, spiritual musings, allegories, satire, wanderings into the occult.
His 19th century plays, from his “naturalistic” period – “The Father,” “The Stronger” – as well as 1888’s “Miss Julie,” a brief exploration of sexual and class warfare, are still produced regularly, particularly the latter (Buffalo’s Irish Classical Theatre Company had an acclaimed and earthy production, “After Miss Julie,” earlier this year. There also have been numerous, well-received screenplays.
Currently, a relatively new kid on the Western New York theatrical block is taking its turn with the unhappy, difficult, sometimes harrowing work of Strindberg, whose dramas were often classified as “too demanding for the stage.” Matthew Mooney’s fledgling and apparently fearless Buffalo Chrysalis Theatre Company (BCTC) has just opened its take on “Miss Julie” at its historic home, the third floor of Hamburg’s beautifully restored Grange Theatre. The company also goes on the road occasionally, appearing periodically at Medaille College’s campus theater.
But, to this “Miss Julie.” In his famous “Foreward” to the play – written after its publication) – Strindberg described Julie (the privileged, unmarried, 20something daughter of a local, wealthy, northern European landowner), Jean (a valet of the manor and upper-mobility crazed) and Christine (Jean’s fiancee, subservient and seldom out-of-the-kitchen) as “hysterical, unstable, a mixture of the old and the new, patchworks of the various stages of culture – hodge-podges, just like the human soul.”
The story follows this trio through one hellish night. It’s Midsummer’s Eve, caper and frolic on the loose among the townsfolk and the gentry. Flower power is potent. “Dusk,” notes Strindberg, “is magical.” Julie, strangely conflicted, dangerously flirtatious and playful this night, is at her teasing best. Jean, obsequious but with a hint of ulterior motive showing, is nevertheless wary and dismisses Julie’s silliness but senses seduction in the air. He sweeps Julie away from the partying masses into the “safety” of his room. What a guy.
It’s a long night and it gets ugly. “Miss Julie” is a play that can get away from director and cast alike. Julie is a mess – “Think like a man,” her mother always said – but her degradation has to be subtle, almost a surprise. Jean, oily smooth, plotting and opportunistic from the start, has to build his unlikeability. Christine – can she really be so naive and maybe bemused? Private agonies, class tensions. There’s a lot going on here.
Act I is rote and wooden – not Strindberg’s fault – mundane talk, little action, the trivial minutes, though, would make Harold Pinter smile. Director Melissa Leventhal and her players – Callie Bush, in the title role; A. Peter Snodgrass, as Jean; Alley Griffin, as Christine – awkwardly pique interest. Storytelling suffers. That interest begins to wane.
But, Bush, Snodgrass and Griffin rally in the post-coitus Act II where recriminations reign, doomed-from-the-start solutions falter, a strangely listless Julie shows some spark, Jean’s dream of living off Julie fades and a return to servitude beckons. Christine wakes up and the tale, which began so benignly, turns downright creepy and terribly tragic.
There are wonderful, superbly played, riveting scenes in middle to late play where director and cast enhance Strindberg’s influence on latter-day psychological drama playwrights such as Pinter, Eugene O’Neill, a collection of absurdists and Tennessee Williams – iconic theater critic Eric Bentley, once at SUNY Buffalo, theorized that “A Streetcar Named Desire” was a rewrite of “Miss Julie.”
Buffalo Chrysalis and August Strindberg. An odd couple. Overall, risky but worthy.
2.5 stars (out of 4)
“Miss Julie,” drama by August Strindberg, produced by Buffalo Chrysalis Theatre continues through Oct. 25 in the Grange Theatre, 22 Main St., Hamburg. Call 903-9288 or visit buffalochrysalistheatre.com.