nytheatre.com review by Matt Roberson
June 11, 2010
Restaging a classical work that was, in part, written to shock its audience's sensibilities asks a lot from a company producing that play today. We are a long way from 19th century Sweden. Sexual boundaries are far more relaxed, and one's social status and future are no longer determined solely by class and gender. Nora's decision to divorce her controlling husband in Ibsen's A Doll's House, a move which stirred major protests in the late 1800s, isn't nearly as distressing today as the fact that she also walks out on her children. So what to do with a play like Strindberg's Miss Julie, in which two characters, one a lowly valet and the other a Count's daughter, collapse into madness over a tryst of which no one else, at first, is even aware? With this particular work's value as a societal defibrillator removed, a theatre production is left with two options: show us the story in an original way that forces us to think in equally new directions, or ramp up the tension to such heights that we cannot bear to look away. Lee Breuer's recent Doll's House, in which all the domineering male figures are played by men under five feet tall and the women by actresses of considerable height, is an example of the former. Sadly, the Scandinavian American Theater Company's current production is an example of neither.
Promising "soundscapes, video, and dynamic physical staging," SATC's Julie, running at the Victor Borge Hall in Midtown, leads one to expect a progressive approach to Strindberg's dated drama. The set, with exposed lights, wires, and televisions running across the stage, is certainly the antithesis of the author's naturalistic aims. Upstage, a projection of a storm cloud serves as the backdrop to the kitchen in which all of the play's action takes place. In reality, however, these technological elements are not creatively, or even forcefully, employed. The moment in which Julie and Jean give over to their sexual urges is a positive exception here, with a sharply edited scene on the small television taking the place of any weird, gropey, onstage copulation. Outside of this moment however, the screens are not used, and the soundscape, which has potential as a device, is poorly recorded and only minimally successful in adding to the production's concept. And "dynamic physical staging"? Under Henning Hegland's direction, there is an incredibly awkward dance between Jean and Julie early in the play, though "dynamic" was not the word which came to mind.
SATC's Miss Julie equally suffers from casting. As the play's lone male, Albert Bendix never reaches deeply enough into Jean's dark, tortured soul as given to him by Strindberg. What is presented instead is more snarky and unpleasant than anything else. The raw, boundless attraction that burns between Jean and Julie, which makes this work dramatically compelling to us today, never appears in the surfacey, mannered characterization of Bendix. As portrayed by Lisa Pettersson, Julie is nuanced and believable, though delivered in a distracting tone that is more 1940s Hollywood than aristocratic. Kristine (the cook; Jean's fiancee) fares well enough in the hands of Anette Norgaard, who is forced to sit on the stage's side stairs throughout most of the play.
It isn't easy to highlight the problematic nature of what is SATC's first production, but it must be done if the same mistakes are to be avoided in their future work. This is a new company, and for that, I am rooting for them. Founded to "further Scandinavian performing arts in New York," SATC has the potential to introduce exciting and unknown work to audiences in a part of town that isn't exactly a hotbed for exciting performing arts. I applaud them for that, and drink to their success. But they'll need more than Ibsen and Strindberg to save them from the problems residing in this current production of Miss Julie. Luckily in November, they'll be leaning on contemporary voices with Andreas Garfield's Home Sweet Home, which I can only imagine is a play more suited to such a young company of actors.