“Miss Julie” produced by Theatre Coup d’Etat at the American Swedish Institute

asi_missjulie_promo1_nelson_stone_roland“You’re strange,” Jean says. “Everything is strange … life … people,” Miss Julie answers. So begins the interplay between the aristocratic young woman and her father’s valet in Theatre Coup d’Etat’s production of August Strindberg’s “Miss Julie.”

With the audience seated in comfortable, period-correct chairs, arranged around three sides of the upstairs ballroom of the American Swedish Institute, Theatre Coup d’Etat could not have delivered a better setting—intimate and surrounded by authenticity. A table, chairs, a cutting board with bread, glasses of wine and beer. Little else was needed to take us into this 19th century kitchen, thick with dangerous yearnings.

Just three characters appear on stage, although Miss Julie’s father’s presence is powerfully felt; his boots, waiting to be cleaned, stand to one side in front of us: Miss Julie (Kelly Nelson), tall and dark, with large, expressive eyes and dramatically arched eyebrows; Jean (James Napoleon Stone), a dashing blond with cosmopolitan ways and earthy charm; the cook Christine (Brie Roland), plain, dutiful and engaged to Jean.

The play, in keeping with Strindberg’s commitment to a naturalistic style of theater, has a simple premise, played out in well-contained scenes. However, life-altering dilemmas develop and themes far beyond their own predicament rise to the surface, one after another, again and again: feminism, classism, fidelity, love and lust, honesty, integrity. And more. This is a complex play.

However, one fundamental drives the dramatic action, and that is the physical attraction between Miss Julie and Jean. From a performance standpoint, this is all the actors need to portray. Strindberg’s dialog will take care of the rest.

I feel in this production that the director (Peter Beard) had this backwards. I’m quite sure that Beard and his cast have done their homework and understand the depth and breadth of what Strindberg is saying. You could see this clearly in the speeches and scenes where the characters reveal their motivations by talking about the pain and disappointment in their lives and their hopes for the future. Stone had me convinced that Jean was quite capable of one day owning his own hotel; Christine’s chilling pragmatism at the end of the play showed Roland’s gifts with language; and Nelson’s speech about Miss Julie’s imagined future was both sensitive and powerful – her finest moment.

But, sadly, there’s not much of a chemical reaction happening among any of them. With Roland’s rich, deep voice, it was hard to picture her as an age match for Jean, who appeared young for the role of a senior servant.

If not actual touching, then eye contact, body language – something was needed – to show us how much Jean and Miss Julie thought they needed each other, physically. At the beginning of Act II, for example, what was there for us to see in Miss Julie that indicated their desires had been consummated?

The truth is, in today’s world, nobody would care about this affair; it’s a premise that’s rooted in another culture and time. But we’re quite capable of understanding it, believing it and being moved by it – if there was something actually there to make us smile, blush or quicken our heartbeats.

The play runs through Oct. 26. It’s a play worth seeing – especially in this wonderful setting.

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