Miss Julie has been done over more times than a hot dog on one of those rolling things at the corner Holiday station. Since August Strindberg debuted the play in 1888, it has been reshaped, rewritten, tweaked and turned completely inside out by seemingly every big-name theater company, community troupe and university program in the country, each projecting the once-controversial play through its own stylized vision. What made Strindberg’s script so provocative in its time—an unconventional structure (one 90-minute act); complex characters (an upper-class woman outwardly tormented by her affair with a lower-class servant); and scandal (it was initially banned for being too offensive)—is exactly what makes it so enticing to the playwright’s successors. Strindberg was clearly ahead of his time, and it’s become the responsibility of everyone since to either catch-up the audience to his idea or the play to the present.
Just in the last few years, for example, Miss Julie has been recast as an interracial affair set during the civil rights era, a tragic Middle Eastern love story and a modern-day Manhattan society battle. Now, director Michael Murphy, a University of Montana Media Arts professor with a background in traditional theater, has added another interpretation to the mix, and, in its own enthrallingly schizophrenic way, it offers as much to chew on as the aforementioned Holiday hot dog.
I mean that in a good way. Murphy’s multi-dimensional vision is part David Lynch, part Martha Graham, part Carl Andre and part Strindberg himself, in the sense of his original boundary-pushing intent. On the surface, Murphy’s presentation is minimal and sparse, but as each new media component is introduced and folded over the last, the production becomes as chaotic and complex as its main character. After a while it becomes clear that none of this show is extemporaneous, it’s simply abstract as hell.
The set, designed by Jake Zeimet, is a naked platform with only a few thin columns stretching up to tall archways. Although the entire play takes place in a kitchen, there are no props save for two metal chairs, a rolling table and a dressform. Silk fabrics act as scrims that occasionally drop down or get draped across the stage, aiding video projections that are used like flashbacks throughout the play. The pre-recorded video—arranged by Murphy and brilliantly shot by Mark Shogren—is an eclectic combination of movement motifs, crisp close-ups and grainy images that leave much to the imagination; it rarely competes with the live action. The bulk of Alessia Carpoca’s costumes are, like the platform set, simple—think The Gap commercials, beige era—but packed with meaning when Miss Julie emerges late in the play in a colorful dress that looks as much like a straightjacket by REI as some futuristic formal wear. Meanwhile, nobody ever wears shoes. And, finally, the play opens with the Kronos Quartet blaring and a shadow dance backlit behind one of the scrims—just the beginning of a substantial amount of modern choreography contributed by recent UM dance graduate Anya Cloud. It can be a lot to take in—like a gang of art house avant gardes arm wrestling a team of minimalists over who gets to show-and-tell.
At other times, though, it’s simply a play with some post-modern trimmings. The small, three-person cast is constantly in jeopardy of becoming secondary to the production, but Murphy strips the dance, video and sound away just as quickly as he builds it back up. It’s a perilous balance and one that doesn’t always work, but it’s surprising how long stretches emerge as nothing more than straight dialogue. And when that’s the case, Amber Rose Mason shines as Julie. She is a gorgeous and convincing young actor, and has the depth to convey her character’s torn feelings over lust, convention and reality.
When problems do arise, it’s when Murphy asks the actors to juggle his production needs while simultaneously delivering Strindberg’s lines. These awkward exchanges are the equivalent of watching a weightlifter’s knees buckle—an unfortunate exit from an otherwise surreal environment. In one intimate scene, Julie says to her lover with a degree of urgency, “I need to tell you about my life,” and then clumsily reaches to position a sheet for the flashback video. All of a sudden it looks like she’s hanging laundry.
Also troublesome is some of the more preciously packaged video. The flashbacks are engrossing, as is a dreamlike love scene that’s projected across the entire stage, but when video is used to play up a character’s neurosis, for example, it comes off like pretentious French noir. Murphy has fun indulging in video—he did the same thing in 2004 with an update of Uncle Vanya—but at times here it feels extraneous, a trick that threatens to grow old.
Murphy’s facelift of Miss Julie succeeds in essentially breaking down and rebuilding Strindberg’s play repeatedly. But unlike many of his contemporaries, who mold the storyline to fit a new time or set of circumstances, Murphy dissects the raw material as is—and adds to it regardless of the where or when. I’m not sure if that always makes great theater, but it is a provocative exercise.
Miss Julie continues at UM’s Masquer Theatre through Saturday, March 3, and continues March 6–10 at 7:30 PM. $11/$10 seniors and students.