Shocking, controversial and initially banned from production in multiple countries, August Strindberg’s naturalistic 1888 drama Miss Julie has become a world theater classic. Though attitudes toward sex and class have evolved vastly since the Swedish playwright crafted his powerhouse script, Miss Julie remains riveting, disturbing and psychologically provocative.
The proof is now onstage at Barry University’s Pelican Theatre, where The Naked Stage is performing its intense new production of Miss Julie.
Directed with exquisite attention to detail by Margaret M. Ledford, Miss Julie reunites Naked Stage artistic director Katherine Amadeo and Matthew William Chizever, last paired in the company’s powerful Turn of the Screw. The two have a fiery dramatic chemistry, one that deepens the impact of the power shifts and sexual gamesmanship inherent in Miss Julie.
Set during a night of Midsummer’s Eve revelry, the action unfolds in the kitchen of a Swedish count’s estate. The plainspoken cook Christine (Deborah L. Sherman) has put together a foul-smelling concoction for Miss Julie’s dog, impregnated by the gamekeeper’s mutt, because the lady of the house doesn’t want her fine canine bearing mongrel pups (yes, that’s symbolic).
Christine’s fiance, the servant Jean (Chizever), comes back from the raucous celebration to report on their mistress’ scandalous behavior. Having recently broken her engagement, Miss Julie (Amadeo) has stayed home to party with the hired help. She has danced with a succession of servants, Jean included, and tongues are already wagging. Then she pays a life-altering visit to the kitchen.
As Christine sleeps, Jean and Miss Julie talk, and more. Their verbal pas de deux, with its frequent power shifts, gives way to a violently passionate encounter on the kitchen table. Miss Julie is undone, in more ways than one, and though the two talk of running off together, her only journey is toward oblivion.
Vocally and physically, the commanding Chizever is an imposing presence as Jean squares off against Amadeo’s slender, luminous Miss Julie. Yet the actors and director Ledford keep the sadomasochistic sexual tension crackling, as the cautious Jean gives in to the manipulative Miss Julie’s commands (watch as he kisses his way upward from the toe of her boot), then dominates her verbally and physically.
The production values are of a piece with the direction and acting. Antonio Amadeo has designed a gray period kitchen with servant-summoning bells in a high and dominant position (more symbolism). Doing double duty as costume designer, Sherman gives Christine and Miss Julie clothing that underscores class differences, and she dresses Chizever as an elegant gentleman-servant. Doubling as lighting designer, Ledford subtly underscores mood with light and shadow. And Mitch Furman’s sound design, signaling a brewing scandal and the count’s return, sets the stage for tragedy.