Dressing Miss Julie
nytheatre.com review by Allison Taylor
August 12, 2007
In Miss Julie, August Strindberg's drama about the clash between an aristocratic woman and her father's valet, the servant Jean is deathly afraid of a bell. Why a bell, you say? Well, literally, it's the bell his master rings whenever he needs his shoes polished or his coffee served. And metaphorically, it's a reminder that Jean is a servant, incapable of rising above his servitude. But in Dressing Miss Julie, everyone should be afraid of the bell. That's because during this parody, the audience has the power to ring it. And every time you ring the bell, the two actors portraying Miss Julie and Jean stop everything, take off their clothes, put on each other's clothes, switch roles, and pick up right where they left off.
Sound fun? It is. And Anna Kull and Justin Perkins, the show's two creators and performers, must be having fun too, judging from the glee with which they slip into each other's clothes. Remarkably, the gimmick does not get tired, thanks to the clean pace provided by director Emily Fishbaine and the show's brevity. (They stop at 70 minutes, whether or not they're finished with the play.) And although the script mostly takes from Strindberg's text, Kull and Perkins have put a modern twist on much of the dialogue and inserted their own little jokes—especially a vast array of theatre references, from A Midsummer Night's Dream to West Side Story.
It's no surprise there are so many theatre references, as the creators have clearly studied Miss Julie closely. Often acknowledged as the first modern play, Miss Julie revolutionized theatre by featuring characters whose motivations, desires, and personality traits change on a dime, not necessarily with any explanation. The story also explores whether the social ladder—for a woman or a male servant—really is climbable. If class and identity are so fluid, Kull and Perkins ask, then why not gender? Then why can't a person literally become another person? That the creators actually structured the parody with an intelligent jumping-off point is something to be respected.
Fear not, though. Those questions are treated with sheer irreverence and you need not know Miss Julie to enjoy yourself, as it's all infectious silliness. Both Kull and Perkins deliver their lines in an appropriately heightened style, mugging charmingly to the crowd who control their fate. Fishbaine has made sure that the two actors embody the characters distinctively. Perkins, a very sensuous Miss Julie, throws back his shoulders seductively and coos raspily at her servant. And as Jean, Kull's voice booms and her arms gesture wildly, as if to tell the world of her torture and anger. In their gender-appropriate roles, Kull plays up the more frenetic, insecure side to Miss Julie, while Perkins's Jean is more brooding and contemplative. Figuring out which of the two sets you prefer is motivation enough to ring the bell repeatedly.
Adding to the madness are the sound design by Sean Bigler and lighting design by Gabriel Hainer Evansohn. Whenever the actors make their switch, campy 1950s lounge music underscores the undressing, while blue and yellow lights flash, a la a corny game show. Maybe most importantly, costume designer Beth Goldenberg provides a zip-up dress and zip-up suit—complete with vest and tie, all sewn together—that can be thrown off and hopped into in 60 seconds.
You know what? Don't be like Jean: don't be afraid of the bell. Go and ring it, and ring it frequently.