Miss Julie (Review)

Performances simmer with passion but never slip into excess

Jan 25, 2010 at 2:06 pm

Playwrights, like novelists, often delve into their own lives for dramatic material. Sweden’s August Strindberg (1849-1912) was, his biographers suggest, more inwardly obsessed than most.

His hammering naturalistic drama, Miss Julie (1889), bears witness. It emerged during the first of his three stormy marriages, this one to Siri von Essen, an actress of reportedly less than stellar capabilities who would first tackle the play’s monumental title role.

The stormy plot is a fevered sex-duel with class warfare overtones between Jean, an ambitious, wily, vulgar but capable servant (Matthew Lewis Johnson), and the spoiled, self-focused daughter (Hayley Clark, pictured) of Jean’s titled employer. Is it over-simplifying to locate seeds of a wayward mistress in the behavior of a willful wife?

Miss Julie appeared on a cusp of a change in Strindberg’s style. He was abandoning the naturalistic drama that had brought him some success in favor of a symbolist expressionism that would flower in works for which he is best known in the English-speaking theater, Dance of Death (1900) and Ghost Sonata (1907). Miss Julie’s two realistic, melodramatic kitchen scenes are interrupted by an otherwise pointless peasant dance that “expresses” the passion of sexual congress going on in Jean’s bedroom.

Cincinnati Shakespeare Company offers Miss Julie in its annual Studio Series of important but seldom seen scripts. Much of it is richly satisfying.

Director Jeremy Dubin stages it clearly and coaches Johnson and Kelly Mengelkoch, playing an iron-laced cook, into performances that simmer with passion but never slip over into excess. Clark, as Miss Julie, begins willfully and well but toward the end descends into diffusion and overused mannerisms — back of hand to nose, for example. And her diction goes straight to hell.

Still, it’s a generally good sit, although the last 20 minutes want simplification and focus.

MISS JULIE is part of Cincinnati Shakespeare Company’s Studio Series, presented on selected evenings through Feb. 13 (in repertory with the double bill of Hughie and Krapp's Last Tape). Buy tickets, check out performance times and get venue details here.