Natalie Rine, Associate New York Critic
Currently gracing midtown’s Chain Theatre is one of the most produced plays of all time, or at least one of the most talked about in Theatre History classes across the Western hemisphere. Miss Julie, written by August Strindberg in 1888, remains a heralding beacon for the now taken-for-granted notion of naturalism in a play—that is, the careful study of human behavior and psychology wherein character motivations and actions are rooted in their heredity and environment. Strindberg’s tale of the young titular mistress drawn to her servant Jean (never mind that he’s engaged to another servant Kristin) takes place with the whole of the seen action in the kitchen of her father’s manor, teeing us up for hilarity and tragedy to ensue as Miss Julie and Jean rapidly escalate their vacillating clash between passion and contempt for each other (Psychology? Check.) rooted in their differing social classes and expectations of how the world should be for them (Heredity and environment? Check and check.).
The play was written as Strindberg was creating this new form of theatre of his own, the Scandinavian Naturalistic Theatre setting the springboard for Miss Julie to spread globally now for 130 years. What is it about this story that we come back to? Is it the scandal of a workplace romance? The simplistic intimacy of a unit set and small cast? I recently visited Copenhagen, where Strindberg’s Theatre would be based before Miss Julie premiered, and I venture to say the measure of this iconic play can be seen in an unexpected place: the Scandinavian importance of a chair.
While in Copenhagen, albeit only one component of the Northern European region, there were whole museums dedicated to the functionality of furniture (take a hop over to Strindberg’s native Sweden and think: IKEA), but by far, their most praised item of humanity’s merging practicality and creativity is the chair. In the view of Scandinavia, the chair is not just something we might plop down in casually; much like Strindberg’s definition of naturalism, there is always a motivation behind such an action, and, more importantly, the design of the chair signals everything from a person’s taste to social class. Is it a bar stool? A throne? The mere invention of the chair created a visible gap between social classes, allowing the privileged to remove themselves from the masses who sat upon the earth and dirt, and quite literally raise themselves above their station.
Directed masterfully by Kym Moore, this Miss Julie excels at playing not just with the language and often fraught character dynamics, but with the physical environment of the set as well. The kitchen of their servants’ world has a simple dining table in the center, with three simple, wooden chairs around it, one on each end and one in the middle standing between them— symbolic of the three characters as they vulture for the upper hand in winning or escaping their love triangle, always with one in the way. Just as the characters begin the play certain of their social stations and duties, thinking they are poised and confidently in control of their own machinations and manipulations of one another, the play ends with the chairs all facing out towards the audience as if to say, “Look at what we have become now. After all of this chaos is said and done, we are all equal in the eyes of Death.” The chairs, you see, lead Miss Julie to believing the only way to escape shame for her consummated passion beneath her station is to kill herself. Well, really it’s the man himself, Jean, but he does so by playing a powerful dance with not just Miss Julie and Kristin’s feelings, but by playing with the chairs. They are slammed as he pontificates on station and love, graced by Miss Julie so he may deign to kiss her feet from the ground, slumped in while a dozing Kristin misses their secretive flirtations, raucously knocked to the floor as they begin to act on their passion for each other, and lastly described as a throne in their wistful reverie wherein they get close to a happy ending.
Of course, the play does not just have this masterful scenic design by Renee Surprenant Fitzgerald, but also the trifecta of performances delivering heart, soul, and heartbreaking naturalism as these characters spiral out of control. Ava Langford as Kristin delivers a performance strong as oak, unwavering in her resolve and faith in the systems in place around her; even as the world seems to crumble, she is a pillar of fortitude (and nineteenth-century sass). Martha Epstein reframes Julie as powerful, a free spirit not desperate but rather ensnared by a charming, luring Jean. Instead of mere psychology we are shown stratagems as they both vie to be puppet-master of one another. Xavier Markey-Smith’s Jean is a Gene Wilder level manic, a passionate whirlpool of energy sucking everything down with him to the darkest depths of his psyche while rapid-fire spitting vitriol and seductions left and right. When they both open the floodgates, opening themselves to begin a passionate one night together, it’s a deluge whipped so into a frenzy by the end that when Julie boldly crosses and surveys the stage before her grand exit, she is the calm in eye of a hurricane, visibly and audibly resolute and silenced by the ways of god and man that she has encountered over the last 110 minutes. Epstein and Markey-Smith deliver Julie and Jean as textured characters with layers of fragility within a class system that constricts their every move. Despite true love being perhaps impossible in these external conditions of their heredity and environment, their battle of wit and whim to understand why they are confounded and damned to each other’s magnetism still makes for an engaging, heart-breaking, and critical-minded theatrical experience.
Also deserving of applause is the warm, snug costume design of Ron Cesario, taking Julie from white blouses of purity and childlike innocent pink skirts transformed by the end to a gown of darker crimson of confusion as she spirals out of control. Overall Kym Moore’s direction is crisp and snappy with not a minute wasted. In Moore’s masterful hands, Miss Julie is a stirring invitation to wake up, an invigorating exploration of choice and consequence, gender and class, freewill and authority that you will want to lean forward in your chair to not miss a beat.
“Miss Julie,” by August Strindberg, is directed by Kym Moore. Cast includes Martha Epstein as Miss Julie, Xavier Markey-Smith as Jean, and Ava Langford as Kristin. Production team includes Ellie Gravitte, Associate Director; Renee Surprenant Fitzgerald, Set Design; Michael Costagliola, Sound/Composer; Natali Arco, Lighting Design; Kameron Neal, Graphic Design; Ron Cesario, Costume Design; Gabriella Piccolino New York PSM; Ken Lumb, Providence PSM; Thom Jones, Vocal Coaching; Liz Hayes, Vocal Coaching; Toro Communications, Public Relations. Run time is 110 minutes with no intermission.
“Miss Julie”’s 15-show limited engagement at Chain Theatre (312 W 36th) began Friday, September 27th and continues through Sunday, October 13th. Tickets are $25 for General Admission and can be purchased online here at Eventbrite. Learn more about the production company at: https://antigravityperformanceproject.org/.
Photo: Xavier Markey-Smith and Martha Epstein by Natali Parco