Theater Review: Harbor Stage Company’s “Miss Julie” — A Respectable Tragedy

This is a satisfying if limited production; the Harbor Stage Company is a troupe that is well worth keeping an eye on.

Miss Julie by August Strindberg. Adapted and directed by Robert Knopf. Staged by the Harbor Stage Company at the Modern Theater at Suffolk University, Boston, MA, through September 25.

in Harbor Stage's production of "Miss Julie." Photo: courtesy of Harbor Stage.

Brenda Withers and Jonathan Fielding in Harbor Stage’s production of “Miss Julie.” Photo: courtesy of Harbor Stage Company.

By Bill Marx

First, a confession: I was reluctant to see the Harbor Stage Company’s production of Miss Julie because of my vivid memories of a marvelous South African version of the play, a touring production of the Baxter Theatre Centre at the University of Cape Town and The South African State Theatre presented by Arts Emerson at the Paramount Center in 2013. Directed by Yaël Farber, the production memorably mixed racial politics (Jean was black, Julie was white) with Greek tragedy and infusions of African culture. As if that wasn’t enough, I had never seen a production of Miss Julie that plunged, with such visceral power, into the sado-masochistic miasma of the attraction/repulsion between the high and low. In his preface to the play, Strindberg calls Jean and Julie ‘animals’ — nature’s elemental libido was on full display on stage in heated scenes of (simulated) rutting and violent blood-letting. One felt intimations of the shock that upset audiences when the play was first performed in the late nineteenth century.

Farber’s production was light years from the usual well manicured set-up, in which the text is treated as rote social drama. Biology and environment doom the aristocratic Julie who, after a bout of slumming, slits her throat at the behest of her lover/servant Jean. In this reading, sexuality comes off as more of a plot device than a primal directive. Strindberg’s fascination with the price that ‘modern’ men and women pay for repression becomes another excuse for a comforting puritanism. (Once again, sex and death join hands and jump the shark.) In its engaging production, the Harbor Stage Company goes beyond this stereotype, mainly through its cast’s exploration of psychological nuance. Still, this is another well-manicured version of Miss Julie. The sexual attraction between Julie and Jean seems besides the point — Jonathan Fielding’s Jon (as the figure is rechristened in this version) walks into the kitchen post-coitus with his shirt unbuttoned, while Brenda Withers’ Julie wanders in holding her shoes — which it wasn’t for Strindberg, who was trying to impress Zola with the sick gleam he could put on Darwinian brass tacks.

Robert Knopf’s adaptation moves at a brisk 90 minutes, no intermission, and excises a lot of material about Julie’s father. Jon is not even given the master’s boots to fetishize. The set is also lean and mean, focusing our attention on the cat-and-mouse game played by Julie and Jon. (Though Stacy Fischer puts some welcome  backbone into Christine, the cook Jon betrays for a chance at the big time.) In this version, Jon represents the rise of the entrepreneurial man, proud of his high class tastes and determined to make his penchant for service profitable. He sees bedding Julie as a means to raise the capital he needs to start up a hotel — he will cater to the 1% while indulging in some of its airs. Julie’s idea of freedom is less about capitalist aspiration than rebirth through pleasurable punishment — she falls with the hope that she will rise, somehow redeemed. But she finds she hasn’t the means to re-invent herself. Women, like men, don’t know that to do with freedom when they find it.

Brenda Withers brings a yearning tenderness to Julie. I have never seen her command for Jon to kiss her foot delivered quite so playfully. (Usually it comes with a  whip-lash of the tongue.) The ends of Withers’ lips continually flip up and down; this Julie is neurotic from the get-go, a woman who doesn’t know whether to smile or frown, to stay or to flee. The character isn’t much of an erotic manipulator, but the actress delivers various forms of degradation with impressive flourishes, rhetorical and physical, her voice modulating with ease from a frightened scream to a whispered curse. Fielding exudes lots of snippy attitude, but he lacks a sense of danger — love explosively caged up with hate. Sometimes Jon doesn’t know until the last moment whether he wants to caress Julie or to give her a smack. Fielding supplies none of that infernal unpredictability — Julie is not the only one who doesn’t know what she is going to do next. Jon is a reasonable cad, in charge of the angles until the master comes home and the jig is up. Fischer’s Christine, certain of herself and the solaces of religion, tells off Jon and Julie with gritty, working class condescension.

This is a satisfying if limited production, and Harbor Stage Company is a talented troupe that is well worth keeping an eye on. Intriguingly, HSC staged the world premiere a play by Withers this summer that I really wanted to attend but couldn’t. How often is a drama reviewer at the center of the action? The Kritik was billed as a Chekovian comedy about a nebbishy small town theater critic who is caught between being positive or negative, painfully honest or self-preserving. I have long dreamed of seeing a variation on An Enemy of the People, a black comedy featuring a theater critic whose iconoclasm makes him a pariah in the artistic community, poison to his or her editors and fellow scribblers. In terms of drama, I am not sure genial empathy is the way to go; ironically, when Chekhov critiques plays by others in his letters he is pitiless. I would prefer a protagonist afflicted with the umbermench delusions of an Ibsenite anti-hero or the self-destructive delusions of a Gothic figure out of Edgar Allan Poe. Could it be that actors are just too good-natured to look with unflinching honesty into the critical heart of darkness?

Bill Marx is the editor-in-chief of The Arts Fuse. For over three decades, he has written about arts and culture for print, broadcast, and online. He has regularly reviewed theater for National Public Radio Station WBUR and The Boston Globe. He created and edited WBUR Online Arts, a cultural webzine that in 2004 won an Online Journalism Award for Specialty Journalism. In 2007 he created The Arts Fuse, an online magazine dedicated to covering arts and culture in Boston and throughout New England.

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