It's hard to imagine how shocking Miss Julie must have seemed when it first appeared on a Stockholm stage. Even now, 123 years after its first production, its frankness remains startling.
The power of August Strindberg's most well-known play is enhanced by stunning performances and gorgeous design work in the production at freeFall Theatre.
Director Eric Davis has moved the play into the 1920s, and has turned the title character into one of that era's semi-liberated "flappers." It's quite an effective idea, despite some minor anachronisms in the way economic classes regard each other.
The play takes place in the course of one night, and into the next morning, in the kitchen of Miss Julie's aristocratic father. In the outer room, the servants are having a holiday party, which the audience hears in the background.
The vivacious, manipulative and self-consciously unconventional Julie has invited herself to the party, and insists on dancing with the servants. She's especially interested in Jean, her father's footman, who seems to be engaged to the plain kitchen servant Christine.
When Miss Julie first enters the kitchen she clearly enjoys her position of power over Jean, and enjoys making him and Christine uncomfortable when she orders him to dance with her.
But the social roles become complicated, even reversed, when Julie and Jean make love. They are man and woman, not servant and master, and she has debased herself by having unmarried sex; conflicting gender roles and class roles collide.
Geneva Rae's title performance is rich, uninhibited and complex. Strindberg and Rae continually strip away layers of Julie's veneer of self-assuredness, and by play's end Rae has incrementally transformed the way she speaks, walks and moves.
Meg Heimstead has the smallest role, and the mousy and victimized Christine is the play's only one-dimensional character. But Heimstead's performance emphasizes the character's strength that makes Christine more appealing.
James Oliver, as Jean, is undeniably powerful but not as dynamic as Rae or even Heimstead. That his character is almost completely abhorrent no doubt makes Oliver's job tougher, as does the fact that Rae is so mesmerizing that she commands every scene they share.
Greg Bierce's scenic design is simply lovely. There's a neat, if perhaps somewhat unsubtle, aspect to set: Elements of the kitchen refer visually to an ornate birdcage that sits upstage. We may not need that extra reminder that the plays characters' are metaphorically caged, but it's still effective, and it just looks good.
Jo Averill-Snell provides lighting that's both beautiful and integral to the production, and director Davis had designed costumes that help define the characters.
Strindberg's statements are not simple, and the people he creates are, like most of us, often inconsistent and self-contradictory. He's been called a misogynist and a women's liberationist. These actors and this director don't shy from the contradictions in the script, and the result is a theater experience that's emotionally and intellectually difficult, and uncommonly forceful.