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Michael Aronov and Mimi Bilinski in Miss Julie
(Photo © Tyler Micoleau)
As with many plays, there are numerous ways in which to present Miss Julie, August Strindberg's allegory about the enduring battle of the master and servant classes and the eternal sexual contest between man and woman. Earlier this year at London's Donmar Warehouse, Patrick Closer Marber updated and shifted the entire enterprise to England and the 1946 post-World War II election -- renaming the soignee, quivering upper-lip melodrama, After Miss Julie.

Scott Schwartz, who's fast becoming one of today's most versatile young directors, takes a different tack. He doesn't, however, take his cue from the new Truda Stockenström translation he's using, where the opening stage directions partly note that in the manor house kitchen where the drama unfolds, "The stove is decorated with birch boughs, the floor is strewn with twigs of juniper." Oh, no, he's working with producer-set designer's Beowulf Boritt's conception, as explained in a note from him and co-producer Jessica Niebanck, that "Strindberg's classic text inspired us to question [the play's] dynamics within the context of the current affairs of the world. What is the cost of an imperialistic posture? What other cultures repeat the cycle of forcing women into prescribed subservient roles? What are the consequences when one group of people elect themselves to tame the 'savages'?"

So Schwartz, Boritt, and Niebanck have transposed Strindberg's one-act play about love and lust in a cold climate to an exercise about love and lust and unsettling politics in a very hot climate, indeed. Hot as Iraq under the sun, under fire, and under the eyes of the world, you could say. They've enlisted sound designer Jill BC Du Boff to elaborate on their ideas. Boritt's set, dominated by a staircase encased in scaffolding, is shabby, make do, antiquated. Du Boff has amplified the staircase so that people traversing it make a metallic racket. At the play's outset, she lets in woeful strains of music (that might be Iraqi maqam) from the party supposedly taking place on the other side of the clanging upstairs door. Lighting designer Tyler Micoleau doesn't suggest heat so much as dank shadows in the cramped, airless kitchen. His work echoes the play's -- and this production's -- juxtaposition of light and dark pressures.

Costume designer Mattie Ullrich also does her bit when outfitting up the play's three characters. Well, it's really Opal Alladin's Muslim head covering that drives home the creative team's point about oppression of women. Alladin is Kristine, the woman to whom manservant Jean (Michael Aronov) has committed himself, while he and Miss Julie (Mimi Bilinski) play out their overnight game of psychosexual cat-and-mouse. It's when Alladin appears in ritual dress towards the play's end that Schwartz and Ullrich set off their small bombshell. It's a subtle thing, but it works -- especially because Kristine has been rendered helpless in the Julie-Jean tangle.

But does the entire production work as a metaphor for American imperialism? I'm not so sure. I didn't come away from the treatment thinking of the unexpected -- and at the moment potentially dire -- consequences of American presence in Iraq. Part of the reason is that the analogy doesn't entirely jibe. Though Jean and Kristine certainly register as figures potentially oppressed by an invading force, Miss Julie isn't the ideal oppressor symbol. In a stretch of the imagination she could be taken for the equivalent of, say, Paul Bremer's daughter, but it's the Paul Bremer figure you want to see. As Strindberg writes the play, however, the demanding major remains upstairs, his presence indicated only by the bells he rings for attention. If the focal wartime players nowadays are represented by the likes of Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney, Ahmed Chalabi, and Lynndie English, there may be a better candidate than Miss Julie to underscore their questionable deeds.

Though the comparison of Strindberg's exercise and the Iraq conflict, then, is skewed, its also not necessary for this interpretation of Miss Julie to click. What's needed in any fling at the pressure-cooker piece is convincingly dramatic interaction between Jean and Miss Julie. Director Schwartz has that in great supply, because to begin with, he's got Michael Aronov as Jean giving one helluva macho performance. Aronov, in trim beard and lean as a panther, moves with a panther's grace. When Miss Julie insists he kiss her shoe, Aronov doesn't just kneel, he drops to push-up position and then lowers himself to her instep. At least once, he leaps on the kitchen table in one quick bound. His every gesture is balletic; he's buff in either his chauffeur's uniform or out of it. There's a sequence when, listening to Miss Julie chide him, his silence is marked only by slight jolts of his head -- as if he's enduring physical assault. It's possible, of course, to depict Jean as alternating between power over and subordination to Miss Julie, but in Aronov's performance, potential for weakening is underplayed. Because the actor is so magnetic, this is a Jean who never entirely buckles under.

Opal Alladin and Mimi Bilinski in Miss Julie
(Photo © Tyler Micoleau)
Aronov isn't on stage by himself, though, and he and Schwartz have Mimi Bilinski as the other half of a seduction scene Strindberg has cannily written so it's unclear from start to finish who's seducing whom and who's outwitting whom. For the grappling, designer Mattie Ullrich puts Bilinski in a filmy, flimsy negligee with an overgarment featuring a number of ribbons that have to be undone before Miss Julie can stand on a table in high-bosomed allure and Jean can stand hungrily below her. The swarthy Aronov and fair-haired Bilinski play what follows the erotic ribbon undoing with the sort of white heat that makes an audience glad the theater is air-conditioned. Most of the other vacillating by-play between the characters is just as intense, although there are a few moments when Bilinski, adept at Miss Julie's labile behavior, overacts the high-born-anguish segments and helmer Schwartz doesn't correct her. Opal Alladin is quietly effective throughout as Kristine, and especially at the end when she's covered her luxuriant black hair and the character's enforced impotence is manifest.

Where likening Miss Julie to the situation in Iraq makes most sense is in the play's ultimate statement that with struggles of this sort -- whether they're between men and women, between upper and lower classes, between and among countries with varying cultural heritages -- no one wins. They're ultimately destructive to all participants. From moment to moment one side may seem to be prevailing, but at the end of the day, it's all in vain. That message is abundantly clear in this steamy vision of Miss Julie.

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