Censored in Sweden and banned in Berlin, August Strindberg's controversial "Miss Julie" wasn't exactly your average night at the theater in the late 19th century. While its raw depiction of class and gender power struggles may not hold quite the same shock value for a present-day audience, Theatre Coup d'Etat's current production ably demonstrates that "Miss Julie" still packs a visceral punch.
The play takes place in the kitchen of a Swedish count's country estate. While the rest of the household enjoys the revels of a Midsummer celebration outside, the count's daughter Julie has descended to the kitchen to engage in a complex game of seduction with Jean, her father's valet. She seems to wield the upper hand at first, but their roles reverse in the second half of the play, with complex arguments about gender and class expectations bubbling up in physical and emotional violence.
Under Peter Beard's direction, the first half of this naturalistic drama unfolds at almost too deliberate and stately a pace, filled with long pauses and myriad domestic details. Kelly Nelson's Julie seems more petulant than dangerous and the sexual tension between her character and James Napoleon Stone's Jean lacks a convincing edginess.
The tempo changes in the second act, as these two begin to parse the consequences of their actions. While Nelson isn't completely commanding as the imperious noblewoman of the first act, she displays a potent blend of childlike naiveté and unraveling control in the second. Stone competently conveys Jean's mercurial shifts between servility and ambition, tempered by an undercurrent of pragmatic self-preservation.
Perhaps the most notable performance, however, comes from Brie Roland as Christine, the household cook hovering on the periphery of the action. There's an almost sinister quality to her understated yet focused demeanor that's compellingly powerful. This dynamic is most notable in a scene toward the end of the play when her silence in the face of Julie's rising hysteria is eloquent in what it says about the balance of power between the two. Similarly, she evokes a sense of carefully controlled turbulence in her ambiguous relationship to Jean. Every expression and gesture counts in this spare and subtle performance.
Despite a leisurely start, this "Miss Julie" builds to an almost unbearable level of tension by the end of the second act. As a bonus, all of this angst takes place in as apt a setting as could be imagined: the intimate ballroom of the American Swedish Institute's Turnblad Mansion. Just walking up the mansion's magnificent staircase is enough to prep an audience for the milieu of the play's "upstairs downstairs" world.
Lisa Brock writes about theater.