When first produced in 1889, August Strindberg’s “naturalistic tragedy,” Miss Julie, was a shocker: not just for its stark class conflicts, herky-jerky dialogue, and “multiplicity of motives,” but also because the set was what it was supposed to be. The play takes place in a kitchen, and Strindberg’s — much to the amazement of audiences accustomed to scenery painted on flats and drops — had a real stove, real plates, rows of copper pots, and even a speaking tube to the second floor.
The theater of the Gilded Age was indeed that: everything on a grand scale in houses that seated thousands. It was spectacle for the wealthy and could match Vegas glitz for glitz. By deliberate contrast, Miss Julie opened, one critic wrote, “in a depressing little room on the first floor” of a Copenhagen building. “The window shutters are screwed shut, and only a single lamp illuminates the stage.”
In a famous preface, most of which he stole from Andre Antoine (the “Father of Modern Theater,” featured next week), Strindberg extols the emerging realist/naturalist movements. “What most interests people today is the psychological process. Our prying minds are not content merely with seeing something happen — they must know why it happens.” Such a process, he says, demands as lifelike a stage as possible: so scrap the footlights (“why should all actors be fat in the face?”) and remove makeup. To emphasize the break from illusion, actors can even turn their backs to the audience.
The play takes place one midsummer night, a bewitching time in Shakespeare and Stephen Sondheim’s musical A Little Night Music, if not in San Diego, where midsummer runs from mid-July to mid-September. Miss Julie, aristocratic “half-woman man-hater,” falls for/is seduced by Jean, her father’s valet who dreams of bettering his social standing. Unable to take the humiliation of her unthinkable drop in class, Julie eventually decides to leave life early.
For Sledgehammer Theatre, director Josh Chambers has remixed Miss Julie. The play’s set in Strindberg’s time and today, in Los Angeles, where the modern Julie’s a rich ditz and a sort of/sort of not famous actor. Jean, now John, is her father’s chauffeur, with one eye on the road, the other on his Main Chance. Christine, in both eras, is the cook betrothed to Jean/John. Not content with staging it as a period piece, in a note the director says he’s “pursuing a performance that can consummate the intimations of the occult” in Miss Julie.
For said consummation, Chambers gives us the now-familiar late- and post-modern attempts to fracture the realism Strindberg helped introduce to theater: intrusive sounds, formal movements and repetitions, characters so backlit the audience becomes blinded. Ominous blackouts seal off scenes like the slamming of a mighty vault. For fans of Sledgehammer, these Brecht-gone-berserk, alienating devices recall — but often don’t compare in imaginative fervor — with artistic director Scott Feldsher’s ongoing crusade against realistic theater.
The three-person cast performs on bookcase-like platforms. White curtains open to reveal chairs. In this configuration, Chambers echoes the original. Along with being about sexual and social inequalities, Miss Julie broke new ground in almost every frame by altering the power dynamics between Julie and Jean. First she controls, then he, then she again. Each fights for even momentary status. Rarely are they equal.
Chambers puts Julie (Claire Smith) above, and John (William Popp) below, or vice versa, then has them shift positions in a slow, nonverbal dance for dominance. The dance is vertical and horizontal: after each blackout Jean and Julie begin as different people from the previous scene. The production includes music, some of it arresting, and dance numbers, as when the Three Little Pigs slam skillets (for unclear reasons — the consummation of occult intimations? — pigs abound in this show, so many you’d think it’s set in Thomas Pynchon’s legendary Manhattan Beach apartment). But the real choreography’s in the blocking, sometimes brusque, sometimes balletic, often telling.
The acting’s often more attitude than emotion, however. Popp and Smith are strong physical performers, but both fall flat in the final scene. They have no attendant business: he doesn’t jump from the top shelf; she doesn’t hyper-gesture like a cheerleader who guzzled a dozen Starbucks lattes. They’re alone. And the play ends not with Strindberg’s bang but a strange whimper. Was this by design? Was the director showing us how bankrupt realist theater’s become if left to its own devices? Maybe. But it also shows that auteur-director attempts, which began in the late ’60s and culminated in the early ’90s, to defamiliarize realism have become all-too-familiar as well.
Miss Julie by August Strindberg
Sledgehammer Theatre, 10th Avenue Theatre, 930 Tenth Avenue, downtown
Directed by Josh Chambers; cast: Claire Smith, William Popp, Charlotte DiGregorio; scenic design, Ken MacKenzie; costumes, Leah Piehl; lighting, John Eckert; sound, Jay Maury; musical composition, Chambers
Playing through April 27; Thursday through Saturday at 8:00 p.m. Sunday at 7:00 p.m. Matinee Sunday, April 27, at 2:00 p.m. 619-544-1484.