Theater Reviews

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The Fountain Theatre, Los Angeles
Through April 1


The main themes of August Strindberg's signature play lend themselves readily to adaptation. Miss Julie's struggle with the restrictions and rules of class consciousness, personal responsibility and feminism-anticipating sexuality have been relocated from 1894 Sweden on Midsummer's Eve to locales as far afield as 19th century Ireland during the Protestant Ascendancy and South Africa under the yoke of apartheid.

The play's bleak, anti-heroic ending serves as a bitter statement of how power corrupts and a warning of where such corruption leads and is very much a fable for our time. As a superbly crafted example of economical dramaturgy that crescendos to its terrible end, it is a gripping piece of theater.

And so it is entirely fitting that the Fountain Theatre's first production of its 2007 season, taking place during Black History Month, is the world premiere of an adaptation of the Strindberg play set in rural Mississippi during the so-called Freedom Summer of 1964. The parallels are striking, particularly in the case of the two black characters: the upwardly ambitious chauffeur (Chuma Gault) and the straight-laced, cautious cook (Judith Moreland).

The parallels in the case of Miss Julie herself (Tracy Middendorf) are less clear because her character as written and performed emerges with a decidedly Tennessee Williams cast, decaying fast and furiously in the semitropical Southern climate. Although this might make a great deal of sense given the setting and the evolution of psychological insight in the century since the play was written, it creates a character that lacks the central core of uptight rigidity whose disintegration is usually the dramatic core of the play.

Middendorf, with her painfully frail body, wilting beauty and halting sensuality, does everything she can to make the risk-taking successful. Her Southern drawl alternates mercurially between hysteria and lament, she flings her body about carelessly as if she were a puppet on a perilously thin string, and her gaudy smiles are masks through which her terrible inner hopelessness and fear hauntingly glare.

Gault is excellent as the chauffeur who is of two minds about rising out of his class, eloquently moving the story forward with both word and deed. And though he resides too much in the stolid side of his character's dilemma -- neither he nor Middendorf ever manage to ignite anything ap-proaching sexual chemistry until the climactic moment of their lovemaking -- the fact that he is capable of such chemistry is shown by his passionate relationship with the wonderful Moreland, who uses her expressive body and beautiful voice to great effect and yet is wise enough not to steal the show from her colleagues.

The production is first class all around, with a interestingly cluttered stage, simple but effective costumes and directing that uses the full stage without seeming too busy.

This adaptation is well worth seeing on a variety of levels, especially as a reminder of the cauldron out of which the current state of racial tensions in our country was born. It is more problematic as an adaptation per se, as any adaptation is bound to be, because the original, with its specifically Swedish characteristics, is so well known.

MISS JULIE
Presented by the Fountain Theatre Geffen Playhouse
Credits:
Based on the play by: August Strindberg
Adapted and directed by: Stephen Sachs
Set designer: Travis Gale Lewis
Costume designer: Shon LeBlanc
Lighting designer: Kathi O'Donohue
Sound designer: David B. Marling
Vocal coach: Larry Moss
Stage manager: Terri Roberts
Cast:
Julie: Tracy Middendorf
John: Chuma Gault
Christine: Judith Moreland
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