Servant Problem


For all its backward gender politics, Miss Julie stands as a primer in dramatic complexity. A contemporary (and artistic synthesizer) of Freud, Darwin, Marx, and Nietzsche, playwright August Strindberg provides multiple, even competing, motivations for his characters’ actions. Still and all, the play has fallen out of favor with today’s audiences.

Set on a country estate in late-19th-century Sweden, the plot revolves around an unbalanced debutante who takes her own life after tumbling into bed with her social-climbing servant. Modern analogies aren’t obvious (imagine Paris Hilton slitting her own throat for shtupping her chauffeur), and Strindberg’s infamous women problem can definitely hamper our sympathies. Sad to say but Miss Julie is in danger of becoming a play that only a theater professor could love.

Perhaps to make the tale more accessible, director Scott Schwartz (best known for Golda’s Balcony) relocates his Miss Julie to the Middle East, with Julie transformed into the daughter of a European oil baron, Jean as an Arab butler, and Jean’s fiancée Kristine as a kitchen maid in a headscarf. Not surprisingly, the staging begs more questions than it can answer. (Why is genteel Julie, for instance, living in what appears to be a filthy refinery?) Fortunately, Truda Stockenström’s new translation doesn’t notice the change of scenery, nor do the actors for the most part, who turn in credible performances by doing what they’re supposed to—living out their characters’ experience rather than making excuses for the story’s lack of relevance.

First and foremost praise must go to Michael Aronov, whose portrayal of Jean is artful not only in its pure seductive power but in the contradictory feelings it exposes. Smirkingly handsome, this Jean commands attention every time he changes his shirt (which is often), an act of strutting masked as dutiful submission to his mistress, who does everything she can to catch a glimpse of his muscular back.

Mimi Bilinski’s Julie transforms 19th-century hysteria into a 21st-century borderline diagnosis—imagine Elizabeth Wurtzel as a Scandinavian neurotic thrown into the desert. The performance provokes a few unintended laughs (mostly due to the role’s shrill notes), though Bilinski captures Julie’s darkening inner reality with novel truthfulness.

Schwartz hasn’t yet figured out how to present Strindberg’s etiolated masterpiece. Clumsy blackouts and ponderous tableaux give the production a slapped-together feeling. But his cast (including Opal Alladin’s refreshingly sultry Kristine) bridges attitudes and mores that, distant as they are, continue to underlie the power games that enthrall us.