Girl gets drunk, girl hits on unsuitable boy, things happen, girl wakes up the next morning hideously embarrassed. You know this plot line; it’s been getting a lot of mileage this year, but almost always as a comedy. It is, arguably, more effective as a tragedy, as Chicago theater company The Hypocrites proves in its production of August Strindberg’s Miss Julie.
The play is a war of sexual attrition, spinning around the aristocratic Lady Julie, her father’s valet Jean, and a lot of alcohol. In 90 spare, claustrophobic minutes, the audience is subjected to a double portrait of two people bent on destroying each other; two monsters in a severely realistic setting.
Anyone with previous exposure to director Sean Graney or The Hypocrites (we saw two Graney productions last quarter with UT’s Top Girls and Court Theatre’s What the Butler Saw) will expect certain things: bright colors, raucous sound cues, food on stage, jokes in the most unlikely places, breaks in the action. And yes, you will get those here. No doubt about it, Miss Julie has been thoroughly Hypocritized.
The play is done in promenade, which is to say that the audience walks through the performance space and is encouraged to move while the actors are talking. The color-coded sets unfold from a central cube, compact and meticulously real. The actors occasionally take breaks from the action to sing. One actress delivers a short speech in another language, and the crew of farm workers chat with the audience while playing a game of Risk.
In adapting Miss Julie, Graney has melded the naturalism of the text with his characteristic surrealism. It sounds like a good idea, since Miss Julie is essentially 90 grueling minutes of talking—mostly page-long monologues.
Unfortunately, not all the additions are effective. Kevin O’Donnell’s music is best as underscore—the songs break and are more irritating than illuminating. Jean’s tango “Paralyzed and Fascinated” is the exception, both musically and thematically. Some set details and blocking seem to exist for their very strangeness rather than their contribution to the play; the reasons for delivering a monologue on roller skates still evade me.
Miss Julie is a deeply uncomfortable play, but the reason for this is the solidity of the play itself rather than the trappings of this particular production. It doesn’t need to be improved on, or be broken up with songs. In light of this fact, The Hypocrites do a smashing job with the text itself. This is partly because they have a good translation; the play is usually full of stilted, dated language that leaves the reader alternately yawning and hunting for a dictionary.
More importantly, the success of this production turns on the fact that Jean and Julie are softer, and more strongly real. Graney and his cast have managed to render the brutality of the text while hanging onto a lingering attachment between the main characters; we can believe that their attraction is more than purely detached physicality or an inherent need to destroy. Even Kristin the cook—the least defined of the play’s central characters—loses her sharp, caricatured edges and turns into someone we can recognize.
Am I against the non-naturalistic? No. The final scene of the play, staged in a meat cellar, is a brilliant literalization of the play’s strongest metaphors and a chilling, tingling proof of what Graney’s trademark magical realism theater can accomplish. This example is well worth the trip.