Midsummer Night’s Catastrophe

Theatre review: Miss Julie

By Perry Tannenbaum

There is danger beneath the summer moon in August Strindberg’s Miss Julie as a spoiled, wanton, and impulsive heiress toys with daddy’s dutiful and ambitious valet. But there are ambiguities about Miss Julie – a fairly wide latitude in how she can be portrayed – and the echoes of Strindberg’s 1889 script reverberate into Oscar Wilde’s Salome and a bunch of Tennessee Williams dramas, further complicating our response.

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Shakespeare Carolina is giving us the opportunity to view Strindberg’s classic up close in a new production at the fine Johnson Hall black box on the Winthrop University campus. Up close, we can easily see that director S. Wilson Lee has skewed his casting a little younger than the 25 prescribed by the playwright for his title character and the 30 advised for Jean, her valet. Caitlin Byrne seems a little more innocent as Julie than Strindberg perhaps intends, a little less stung and desperate because her recent fiancée has broken it off.

Still we can see her kinship with Salome in her awareness of her allure, her earthy wantonness, her expertise at manipulation, and her seething desire to command the men who desire her – leading to Julie’s contempt for all of them. She’s just not as evil and cruel as Wilde’s wicked temptress. Nor does she completely enjoy the upper hand with Jean.

When he’s a few years older, David Hensley will be able to mix more of Jean’s worldliness in with his youthful confidence and ambition. Right now, when the master’s bell startles him, Hensley’s reaction looks inbred where his reflexive response should be at odds with his better judgment. But there’s enough self-assurance in this Jean for us to see that Strindberg considers him to be the Darwinian winner in his on-again-off-again romance with Julie.

If Hensley were a little more commanding, we’d see the parallels between Jean-Julie and Stanley Kowalski-Blanche DuBois more readily, but you’ll likely leave Johnson Hall perceiving the template. You really can’t miss the affinity between Julie and so many toxic women in heat that have proliferated since the days of Strindberg and Wilde.

She comes into the servants’ quarters from a Swedish Midsummer Eve celebration, exhilarated and maybe tipsy. We’ve already heard about the break-up of her engagement, her bold improprieties during the Midsummer revels, and it isn’t long after she arrives that Julie expresses her admiration for Jean’s dance moves. Kristin, the cook who believes Jean’s future domestic bliss will be with her, quickly senses the threat of Julie’s impulsiveness and caprice.

Gayle Taggart has Kristin beautifully measured. She’s prim and proper in her apron, equally alarmed by Jean’s gropings above his station and Julie’s dips below hers. Strindberg actually sets her age five years above Jean’s, in a region where marriage and family have become more urgent for Kristin than for Julie. With Taggart, that biological urgency pretty much disappears, subordinated to her fear of losing Jean. You could imagine her as older than Hensley, but I doubt it. What comes to the fore with Taggart is that Kristin is more of a woman than Julie, an element that spices up the drama.

With her conventional attitudes and pieties, you don’t think Kristin is going to matter, but in the denouement, she does.

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