When lovely woman stoops to folly,
And finds too late that men betray,
What charm can soothe her melancholy,
Presented by Paragon Theatre through March 17, 303-300-2210, www.paragontheatre.org.
What art can wash her guilt away?
The only art her guilt to cover,
To hide her shame from every eye,
To give repentance to her lover
And wring his bosom is — to die.
— Oliver Goldsmith, 1728-1774
In Downton Abbey — that classy soap we're all currently watching — the servants are peaceful and loyal. They know their place. And if there's an occasional moment of distress or resentment below stairs, the master of the house, or one of the several mistresses, immediately attempts to alleviate it, such is these aristocrats' sense of noblesse oblige. But in real life, class differences aren't that kindly — and they were even harsher in the nineteenth century. And class warfare, along with a primal struggle between the sexes, is at the core of August Strindberg's Miss Julie.
With its graphic sex talk and violations of class boundaries, the play, written in 1888, was an important milestone in modern drama. Strindberg thought of the style as naturalistic and of his protagonists as fully formed characters with souls, and he was also influenced by interpretations of Darwinism prevalent at the time. Miss Julie shocked Strindberg's contemporaries, but it's more apt to puzzle us now. Who on earth are these people, and why are they doing the peculiar things they do?
It's a midsummer's night — which, as we remember from Shakespeare's famous Dream, is a time when reality gets suspended. In nineteenth-century Scandinavia, fertility rituals took place, young women used various mystical interventions to figure out whom they were going to marry, evil spirits lurked. As the action begins, Jean, a servant, is in the kitchen with the cook Kristin, to whom he either is or isn't engaged (there's a lot of lying here, and sexual relationships are particularly fluid). Enter Miss Julie, who's been outside celebrating with the locals. She has just broken up with her fiancé — or perhaps he with her — after forcing him to jump over her whip, landing a blow or two while she did it. She's drunk and seductive. Kristin removes herself from the action; Jean worries about reputation. But once he's taken Miss Julie sexually, everything shifts — and all the power moves into his hands.
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Jean is irrational, but we can understand his motivation. He hates his low status, and he wants to destroy careless, arrogant Miss Julie. His feelings toward the Count, her father, on the other hand, are entirely servile. The Count never actually appears, but he's represented by a bell, and by the boots that Jean lovingly polishes. The character of Miss Julie, however, makes almost no sense at all. What in hell motivates her? Sex and power, of course, and the pleasures of domination. But though her huge passions carry a kind of clinical fascination, her mercurial swings are so hysterical and extreme that she seems less a real person than a monster, the creation of an unhinged brain. Which makes sense because Strindberg famously hated women and was known to have endured periods of psychosis himself.
Barbra Andrews is a seductive shrew in the role of Miss Julie, exploring every nuance and playing every emotion fully. Matthew Blood-Smyth is an interesting, sometimes compelling Jean, though his performance doesn't match Andrews's for power. Suzanne Favette is restrained and effective as puritanical Kristin.
This production represents an important step for Paragon. Since its inception a decade ago, the company has been nomadic. For the last couple of years, it shared a space with the Kim Robards Dance Studio (collaborating memorably with Robards herself on David Henry Hwang's The Sound of a Voice, to which she added haunting and mysterious dances). But the space was a nightmare for theater, drinking up sound and limiting tech possibilities. Now, for the first time, the company has its own theater. It's in the RiNo (River North) art district and has a specially constructed black-box auditorium that makes possible a cunningly constructed set, adds intimacy, keeps the focus firmly on the actors — and ensures that we hear every word of this strange and significant play.