Miss Julie, August Strindberg's ground-breaking psychological drama originally set in Sweden in 1874, is transferred to New Orleans in the 1920s, but a valet engaged to the cook still beds the lady of the house, and this violation of social taboos still leads to complications most dire.
The setting is the large kitchen to a mansion, and the set conveys this, though with a sparse, minimalist look. Christine, the cook, is played by the excellent Michelle Ogletree, and she creates a credible characterization, but since Christine is a devout church-goer and shows common-sense, Ogletree has little chance to show her range. David Matranga plays Jean, a valet, and provides the requisite good-looks, and a tall, imposing presence. He does a good job expressing the scripted aspirations of the lower classes for upward mobility, and provides intelligent, persuasive and appropriate line readings, but a little more Stanley Kowalski might have been included - this is a play about lust, and how its impulse can change lives.
Miss Julie herself is portrayed by Jennifer Dean, who enters in a flapper dress and dazzles us with an exciting, vibrant characterization, floated with enthusiasm, coquettish charm and a teasing sense of command - she is wonderful, and I began to think "here is a Miss Julie for the ages." She is soon torpedoed by the script, which requires her to throw charm under the bus, and to become morose and hysterical - seldom has remorse been more demanding. But I treasure Dean showing us the layers beyond a spoiled, self-indulgent, headstrong girl, with an inclination toward games of submission and dominance.
Julia Traber directed, and has obtained vivid characterizations from talented actors, whose gifts carry the show. The pre-show pantomime of Christine paring carrots, however, is tedious, as is a mid-show kitchen pantomime while Jean and Julie are off-stage dancing. The change to New Orleans in the '20s does severe damage to the plot, which requires a closed society, with no choices of escape available to the transgressors, while New Orleans in the jazz age is hardly that. And casting Michelle Ogletree, an African-American, as Jean's fiancée Christine, ignores the fact that anti-miscegenation laws in Louisiana were only repealed by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1987. Such relationships surely existed in the '20s, but Jean would not tell his employer's daughter about his.
The essential element missing is the sexual chemistry between Jean and Julie. They quarrel, they bicker, they discuss, they change their minds and quarrel again. This might be palatable if we sensed they were caught in the powerful web of sexual attraction, which can make fools of us all, but that element is not present here. Without it, we ourselves are caught in a depressing drama, a quasi-tragedy, with too much exposition, and so many themes it might better take place in a university than a kitchen. While Strindberg gives us dialectic discussion, he also sensed the dark vortex of the human soul; this was his genius. The Classical Theatre Company had done well to bring us this seminal work, on the100th anniversary of Strindberg's death, but hasn't found a way to present its heart as well as its text.
Excellent acting and a fascinating beginning go a long way to make interesting a seminal but dated drama that, after a roman candle burst, buries itself in a dead end of depressing alternatives.
Miss Julie continues through October 14, from the Classical Theatre Company at Studio 101, Spring Street Studios, 1824 Spring St. For ticketing or information, call 713-963-9665 or contact the company website.