NEW ORLEANS, LOUISIANA
Miss Julie, a tragedy written by August Strindberg, Sweden's dark, morose
answer to Norway's Henrik Ibsen, is one of the very first one-acters ever
written. It is meant to be seen in one sitting, without a break, and is supposed to run a swift ninety minutes.
In the recent production presented by the University of New Orleans' Department of Drama and Communications in its arena theatre and directed by Phillip Karnell, the head of the MFA/BA Performance Program and the Director of the Resident Acting Company, the tersely crafted play ran on for two hours which skewed it out of its clearly written state and reduced a masterpiece to a pulp.
Miss Julie was also produced in partial fulfillment for the MFA in Drama and Communications for Haley Nix Philips, the actress who played Julie. Even though Miss Philips was not well served either by her director or by her costume designer (Tony French, Asistant Professor), she proved her mettle, and her talent. Unfortuntely, the youthful, clean-cut goodlooks of Brad Harper, who played Jean, Julie's servant class seducer, enhanced by natty livery that said "cadet" more than "lackey," further undermined the drama. Erin Wendt's Kristin, the cook and Jean's fiance, although zaftig, was rendered drab and thoroughly unattractive by her couture.
The setting, by Jason Foreman, also on the UNO faculty, was equally bizarre and obfuscating. True, the playwright quibbles with the definition of "naturalism" in the preface to Miss Julie, written in 1888, and does suggest that he is seeking an impressionistic atmosphere.
With only the floor on which to render this feeling, Mr. Foreman has taken the word "impressionistic" literally and rendered an Evard Munch/Van Goghish sunscape - after all, the play is also taking place specifically on midsummer's eve during the Servant's Ball. Upon this disconcerting surface float two large black lacquered tables with benches. Two small tables also occupy the floor. Hanging from the ceiling is an enormous gray bell - representing the Lord of the Manor and Miss Julie's strick father who is away for this particular evening.
The setting is supposed to be a portion of the Manor's kitchen, and Kristen's domain. Instead, the kitchen is offstage which is where Kristen is consigned through most of the play; thus, a major element in the tension of the piece, the mutual seduction between the upperclass Julie and the lowclass Jean as they succumb to the charms and intoxication of the evening's festivities which ultimately leads them into Jean's bed, is missing. Their exit is the logical point for an intermission.
But Strindberg did not want an intermission; instead, he called for a "ballet" of peasants or servants coming into the kitchen singing a folk song or some such with kegs of beer and bottles of wine and flasks and steins which are left behind, thus cluttering up the space.
In this misdirected production, "ballet" has been taken literally and so ballet, to strange, alien, contemporary music (the same music begins the play - not offstage folkdance music-doing nothing more than expending airless, mindless minutes) adds even more baggage, time and utter embarrassment.
Eight underclassmen have been choreographed by Dollie Rivas. The dancers are clad in grey bodystockings with the men's crotches padded. They wear fright masks that look more Haloween than carnival and they mimically feign the action that is presently going on in Jean's offstage bedroom. It went on interminably.
Julie enters the room the next morning in her slip and proceeds to dress in view of the audience. Unfortunately, she could only snap shut the waist and the neck of her dress, thus playing most of the act with her back exposed.
There is a dynamic scene between Jean and Kristen, who knows that he has violated Miss Julie and that their lives are now irrevokably changed. He defiantly pays her off with a rejected coin which remains on the black-laquered table for the duration of the play. During this same scene they knock over the Count's boots, which Jean brought in on his initial entrance and are meant to palpably represent the level of society Jean will never be able to attain. They stay on the floor even after the Count's return when the great grey bell finally "rings" via the taped sound of a jingle bell. Several savvy students sitting opposite this reviewer actually giggled at this technical absurdity.
With the dawn of a new day, Miss Julie realizes that she has so debased her father and her own station in life that her only recourse is to kill herself. The implement at hand is Jean's shaving razor. Instead of a Sweeny Todd prop of obvious destruction, Jean sauvely strops what looks like a toy razor.
I have pointed out all these many directorial gaffs because I was so insulted by the fuzziness and sloppiness of this charade which was meant to showcase the acting abilities of its leading lady. Instead, it exposed an intellectually and creatively bankrupt Department of Drama and Communications.