In the quest for topicality, it certainly seems as if there's no belief that one can go "too far" in rethinking a familiar play. But in attempting to reconceptualize a piece to proffer a certain point of view about an important issue of the day, it's all too easy to get wrapped up in that concept and forget about making the play underneath seem new.
That's what happens in the new production of August Strindberg's Miss Julie at the Cherry Lane Theatre. It doesn't completely fail as a production of the classic naturalistic drama, nor is it uninteresting. It just never satisfactorily succeeds at proving the necessity of the concept that's been thrust upon it; a production putting a wildly different spin on a familiar play needs to need to be different. This Miss Julie doesn't.
Only the play's setting has been updated. The story now takes place in an unnamed Middle Eastern country in the indeterminate future, with the young woman of the title the white daughter of one of the country's new aristocrats. Though it's never explicitly stated, the country seems quite a bit like Iraq, and Julie's father apparently made his money by bleeding the country dry once he and his compatriots moved in. Julie's employees, Jean and Kristine, are natives forced - either militarily or economically - into servitude.
At the center of the play is the forbidden relationship between Julie (here played by Mimi Bilinski) and Jean (Michael Aronov). Traditionally, this is primarily a class issue - their brief but torrid affair elevates him and pulls her down, and eventually leads to her spiritual confusion and emotional destruction. The play's new setting suggests that the drama will be peppered with some new points of conflict, such as racial differences, the relationship between liberators and the liberated, and so on.
That quickly proves to not be the case. While the production is vividly brought to life (by Beowulf Boritt's set of downtrodden servant's quarters and scaffolding stairs, Mattie Ullrich's costumes, Tyler Micoleau's oppressive lighting, and Jill MC Du Boff's sound), it doesn't dig very deeply. While working from a new translation by Truda Stockenström, director Scott Schwartz never unearths any new or particularly trenchant insights; despite the production's unusual look and feel, this Miss Julie is an otherwise strikingly conventional one.
A fine physical production only goes so far, and even coupled with the current state of Middle Eastern affairs, the play's central problem remains: Strindberg wrote Miss Julie for a very specific time and place. While originally considered shocking and scandalous (it was written in 1888), the play's subject matter and frank depiction of sexual issues seem tame by 2004 standards. Resetting the play in a country experiencing titanic shifts in cultural and sexual attitudes isn't a bad idea, but it needs a more exciting treatment - and probably a more daring and all-encompassing adaptation - than it receives here.
Still, these problems could be alleviated (or at least more easily overlooked) with a strong actress in the title role. Bilinski doesn't fit the bill -- while tall and attractive, her stuffy, disinterested nature doesn't do much to evoke the character. She never seems like a woman suffering from an identity crisis springing either from her uncertainty about her social status or her conflicting ideas of masculinity and femininity. (Given this production's Middle-Eastern setting, this could have provided intriguing possibilities for exploring the different cultures' attitudes about sexuality.)
The central foundation that Julie provides is key, and lacking it, the play doesn't captivate or make much sense. Bilinski's Julie never makes a journey, and her about-faces of character, which lead her from being headstrong to submissive to desperate, feel very false. She's never afraid, lost, or alone - or, really, much of anything. Alladin brings more depth and color to her small role as the cast-aside yet devoted Kristine than Bilinski can manage. This throws off the show's balance somewhat.
Aronov, however, brings a real earthy sensuality to Jean that makes him completely believable as a man who would turn both these women's heads. In his voice and sense of physicality, he has a disarming, sexy seductiveness that, if Bilinski could match it, would result in one steamy play. Instead, in the scene in which the two make love (traditionally presented offstage, but represented stylistically here), the imbalance between Aronov's unquenchable heat and Bilinski's icy dismissiveness renders the moment more silly than erotic.
Not that it matters much - it's difficult to take most of the rest of the production seriously, as it seems more of a sketch than a fully realized re-thinking of the play. While a good example of why thrusting an unwieldy concept on a pre-existing play is a bad idea if you're not willing to take it to its furthest extremes, this is one production of Miss Julie that otherwise misses its mark.