EXTENDED THROUGH MAY 17
Mark Anderson Phillips is Jean the footman and Lauren Grace is Miss Julie, the title character in Mark Jackson’s production of the Strindberg classic at Berkeley’s Aurora Theatre Company. Photos by David Allen
Sex, class, intensity heat up Aurora’s `Miss Julie’
She looks at him dramatically and says, “Where did you learn to talk like that? You must have been to the theater.”
Oh, he’s been to the theater all right. He’s been to a lot of places and plans on going to many more.
She is Miss Julie, the title character in August Strindberg’s 1888 drama now on stage at Berkeley’s Aurora Theatre Company under the astute direction of Mark Jackson, one of the Bay Area’s most original and exciting directors.
Played by Lauren Grace, Miss Julie is all the things Strindberg is aiming for: a contrast in high-born class and low-end raunch, a bold man hater and a sexual provocateur. Grace is fierce and flinching, beautiful and crass.
The man in question is Jean, footman to the Count, Julie’s father. Jean is a self-made man with finely honed skills. As played by the ever-reliable Mark Anderson Phillips, he is masterfully subservient with an eye to greater things. In planning his escape, possibly with Miss Julie’s help, he envisions himself becoming a hotelier who, one day, will be able to buy himself the title of Count.
Strindberg’s Miss Julie is really quite a simple set-up: two passionate people play games – carnal, psychological, fatal — during Midsummer’s Eve festivities. Within that simplicity comes all the delicious complexity of class, economics, sexuality, ambition and power.
Using a vital adaptation of the play by Helen Cooper (originally created for England’s Greenwich Theatre and then turned into the screenplay for Mike Figgis’ 1999 film version of Miss Julie), Jackson’s production takes advantage of the heat generated by Phillips and Grace to sustain some prolonged, sexually loaded silences.
The adaptation, running as a 90-minute one-act, expedites the ending, upping the drama and bringing on stage what Strindberg took off stage. Cooper heightens Strindberg’s extremes. Warning Miss Julie, Jean says, like a low-grade lothario, “It’s dangerous to play with fire.” To which, Julie answers like a soubrette, “Not for me. I’m insured.”
But when the tone shifts to uglier recriminations, Jean makes no bones about their roles as he pours himself a drink: “A servant is a servant, and a whore is a whore. Skol!”
Jackson brings some cinematic flourishes to this intimate chamber production. Composer/sound designer David A. Graves offers a movie-like underscore – folksy jigs when we’re reminded of the celebrations happening outside on the estate’s grounds, intensely romantic and cello dominated when Jean and Julie inch closer to the consummation of their heavy-duty flirtation. And lighting designer Heather Basarab lets colors wash over scenes like tints to photographs – orange for passion and reproach, purple for dancing and romance, blue for casting portentous shadows.
Giulio Cesare Perrone’s kitchen set features a big back wall that catches Basarab’s lights beautifully. There’s also a dangling bunch of tree boughs in the center of the room that casts gorgeous shadows of a verdant summer.
The set is dominated by a long center table that serves as a sort of gauge indicating just how off-kilter the play intends to go. When the table divides the kitchen in half, as it is supposed to do, all is well. When Jean and Julie begin to tussle, the table is pushed askew. After their misguided night of passion, the table is all but upturned.
When Jean’s lover, the pragmatic kitchen maid Christine (efficiently executed by Beth Deitchman), makes known her disapproval of the night’s activities, she straightens that table with righteous fervor.
Jackson’s production is full of potent moments strongly punctuated and expertly staged. The kissing of a shoe becomes an erotic dance. The pushing of a chair or the slamming of a beer bottle become well-placed exclamation points.
While Grace reflects the confusion/confidence of a young woman who knows a lot less about the world than she thinks, Phillips seizes the stage with Jean’s cleverness, his loathing of the upper crust that employs him and his overwhelming desire to be part of that privileged world. When Phillips unleashes Jean’s rage, the small Aurora stage is barely enough to contain him.
Miss Julie is a play that wants to fly in the face of convention, and director Jackson delivers a heat-seeking production that is anything but conventional.
Aurora Theatre Company’s Miss Julie continues through May 17 at 2081 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $40-$42. Call 510-843-4822 or visit www.auroratheatre.org for information.