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(Gone With) Miss Julie

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Changing plays' settings is a tricky proposition and can spell doom for a production if doing so is solely a gimmick with no dramatic value. Exactly the opposite proves to be the case with (Gone With) Miss Julie, Shela Xoregos's energizing production of August Strindberg's 1888 play.

Xoregos has set her production in the American south in 1895, with her Miss Julie (played by Talie Melnyk) a troubled southern belle whose general father was something of a Civil War hero. Her servants Christine and Jean are played by Kim Gainer and Gregory Ward and, as befitting the period, both are black.

As the play revolves around Miss Julie's forbidden love affair with Jean, this puts an intriguing new wrinkle in the familiar story, making modern sense out of a class consciousness struggle that proves a bit foreign in 2003. But with the exception of a couple of changed locales (Jean hails from New Orleans, for example), the text itself (using Michael Meyer's translation) is unaltered, leaving the power of Strindberg's near-poetic language unmuted.

Xoregos has also softened the darker edges of the play, retaining the elements of Greek tragedy while emphasizing the humor, primarily through Melnyk's fine performance. Her southern lilt suggests the stereotypical version of an American damsel in distress, which calls clearly into question our own perceptions of what is serious and comic about the troubles facing us. Melnyk's Miss Julie is over-exaggerated, but she has to be to get what she wants. She's entitled by her southern gentility, and when things don't always go her way - and in this play, they often don't - she's left with few options but to exploit it for all its worth.

The unfortunate side effect of this is that it robs the play's final minutes of some of their possible shattering impact. By focusing so much on the comedy, Xoregos and Melnyk level the playing field with their choices a bit too much. The play still works, but in a very different way, playing more triumphantly than tragically. It's an unusual effect to be seen in what is traditionally a serious play (but one that has always had some comic elements in it), though it's hardly inappropriate. It just gives the proceedings a very different flavor.

As do the dances Xoregos has choreographed by Keith Carter and Jennifer Thompson, again a black man and a white woman dancing out their relationship in a way that mirrors Miss Julie's relationship with Jean. Bright, expressive dancers, Carter and Thompson help elevate the show still further, and are a joy to watch in their moments in the spotlight. But that's hardly uncommon in this production. Melnyk can steal the spotlight, but she also knows how to share it, and her scenes with Ward are pointed and heated in both the stated and the unstated, and Gainer applies a businesslike, impatient sheen to her role that identifies the character as one of a type without stereotyping or condescension.

Carla Gant's costumes for all the actors are colorful, stately, and ideally appointed. But, as there are no sets, the clothes prove to be simply the icing on the cake. Xoregos and her group could conjure up the same thoughtful, moving magic in rehearsal clothes on even a barer stage than what they're using here and it would likely not matter at all. (Gone With) Miss Julie would still be a winner.

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Fourth Annual Midtown International Theatre Festival
(Gone With) Miss Julie
Through August 1
Abingdon Theater Arts Complex, 312 West 36th Street
Schedule and Tickets: 212.279.4200