By Christopher Piatt
If Miss Julie makes sense again, we might all be fucked.
August Strindberg’s unpleasant 1888 overture to Naturalism with a capital N kicked open the door to the 20th century, and American theater and film in particular, when you consider how important “plainclothes tragedy” is to our literary tradition.
Yet for all the things Strindberg predicted and even made possible with Miss Julie, his cruelly misogynist text with the slaughtered animals and smutty Victorian S&M role play is a drama you don’t want to understand. But counterintuitively, this intellectually isolating work is perhaps the most emotionally accessible thing director Sean Graney has yet pulled off.
Strindberg wrote Miss Julie in reaction to what he viewed as a rapid acceleration of cultural and socioeconomic change. His lurid story is about a young aristocrat with a jones for rough trade; she manages to bed her father’s on-the-make footman and pays for it with her life. In its day, the mere suggestion of such a breakdown in social castes was both terrifying and kind of a turn-on, but, more important, it was one that proved accurate in the next century, when gypsy scum would become moguls and royalty would marry common folk.
Even if it fails to draw modern parallels, the Hypocrites’ new production—which is both fine theater and fine basement theater—still feels uncomfortably familiar. Although on its surface this unconventional staging might look just as rebellious as anything the punk troupe has ever shat upon, the production follows many of Strindberg’s radical preface instructions to a tee. Use the most intimate space possible, the playwright urged; treat the fourth wall like the dodo bird; forget about traditional lighting or you’ll never be able to see any facial expressions (all three actors are good, but lighting designer Jared Moore, diffusing a brilliant color palette, is the star); use live musicians, but stick them where they won’t obstruct our view. (Never one to give a writer complete domain, though, Graney still includes signature gimmicks like stagehands in jumpsuits, desecrated doll heads and an affectedly stiff but stiffly effective acting style.)
Keeping the audience on its feet for the play’s entire 80 minutes, Graney walks us through a set that continues to unfold as a maze while the action plays out directly in front of us. We start in the kitchen, where downstairs servants and betrothed lovers Jean (Hardigan) and Christine (a nicely starchy Gleisten) are cleaning up after a party. Bored daughter of the estate Miss Julie barges in on them, dressed like a debutante sex kitten from an Elvis musical, and demands Jean’s attention. (She can have it, of course; her competition is just the maid.) By dawn, degenerate “half-woman” Julie has carried on sexually like any man would (lovely Stoltz, who like all the lovely Hypocrite women, has spent much of her career playing against her femininity, finds the strength where woman-hating Strindberg only wrote perversion). As they frolic and spar, Graney has us traipse with them through a basement barroom, an apocalyptic junkyard and an abattoir.
But unlike the 11th-hour face slaps Graney has tried in the past, here the descent into squalor and weirdness is easeful, even gentle. And for all the rigidity in the performances (maybe because of it?), the play is very much visceral and alive. You won’t soon forget the postcoital pillow talk murmured on walkie-talkies, the hard snap of Stoltz’s finger when Hardigan breaks it to subjugate her or, best of all, sinewy Hardigan’s harrowing rock solo—pure post-punk opera—in which a proletariat joe lets out a jolting primal scream.
The Hypocrites have succeeded so often through lack of competition, which is a bummer both for us and for them. If there were more theater this subversive in Chicago, the company would have both peers and rivals; each fosters quality in a different way. In the meantime, we have a weird quandary: a Miss Julie that should be seen by as many people as possible, playing in a tiny room that could hardly accommodate everyone who would appreciate it; produced at a moment when the play is relevant again but in a style that has little to do with the world around it.
Humanity, and American humanity in particular, once again faces the kind of epochal change that inspired the play to be written in the first place, although almost none of that change is represented here. As what Strindberg would consider a “half-woman” vies for control of the free world, as non-European immigrants reestablish visible castes in a society that once foolishly billed itself as classless and as corporations (our “upstairs” masters) accumulate more power than governments and more personality than private citizens, as well, Miss Julie may be legitimately back in style.
The playwright, like this production, was on to so many things no one else could see. That’s only disturbing when you also consider all the things he didn’t.