Incendiary ‘After Miss Julie’ sets Strawdog Theatre on fire
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She is, without question, a piece of work — the kind of woman who should wear a “Danger” sign around her neck. And in moving her from Victorian era Sweden (where she was born in August Strindberg’s classic, “Miss Julie”), to post-World War II England (where she has now been reborn by way of British playwright Patrick Marber’s wickedly good “After Miss Julie”), she achieves a whole new existence.
Better yet, this “new” Miss Julie is now to be found at Strawdog Theatre in an exquisitely modulated, wholly riveting production that features three superb actors under the meticulous direction of Elly Green. Warning: At times during this 85-minute work you might just have to remind yourself to breathe. It is that intense. Every puff of cigarette smoke, every swish of a brush against shoe leather, every piercing look, every act of cruelty, lust and panic (and there are many) is loaded with intensity.
‘AFTER MISS JULIE’
When: Through Oct. 3
Where: Strawdog Theater, 3829 N. Broadway
Info:(866) 811-4111; www.strawdog.org
Run time: 85 minutes, with no intermission
“After Miss Julie” is a shattering look at that destructive cocktail comprised of class warfare, sexual tension and power plays. Set on a lavish country estate immediately following the war — at the very moment the Labour Party triumphed over the Conservative Party led by Winston Churchill, the man who had just saved Britain — it homes in on Miss Julie (Maggie Scrantom), the restless daughter of the estate owner. Working and living on that estate are John (John Henry Roberts), the owner’s longtime chauffeur and servant, and Christine (Anita Deely), John’s earthy and adoring fiance of many years.
Miss Julie, recently jilted by the officer she fancied, is clearly on the prowl, and desperate to lose her virginity. She and John have had a powerful, long-suppressed attraction since she was a child (there are echoes of Heathcliff and Catherine of “Wuthering Heights” here). And now she circles in on him, alternately seducing and humiliating this intelligent, insightful man who has been exposed to the world of privilege through his contact with her father.
Christine is a church-going woman with a strong work ethic, and she is not unaware of the attraction between John and Miss Julie, although she keeps her distance. And on this particular night, after she has gone to bed, things begin to escalate, and the inevitable happens. There is remorse and anger and lingering passion. But after making various plans to escape their situation, Miss Julie, urged on by John, realizes there is only one escape route left for her.
In a performance of impressive magnetism and manipulation, Scrantom, a slender beauty who conjures a sense of aristocratic privilege and self-destructive adventure, as well as the pain of entrapment, is supremely watchable as Miss Julie. She is an actress who makes you want to see what she will do next. And she and Roberts — a gaunt, handsome, fiercely focused actor with impeccable instincts — generate just the right twisted chemistry. Deely, too, is superb, with a particularly brilliant scene in the play between her and Miss Julie that demonstrates just who is the more powerful of the two. (In fact, the scene calls to mind another Strindberg play, ‘The Stronger.”)
This will be Strawdog’s final season in its current home “up a steep and narrow stairway,” as the company’s building has been tagged for redevelopment. Last season it was visited by 7,000 theatergoers; a formidable audience. So “After Miss Julie” should be considered the first entry in a farewell season at this location, but the start of a new life. It also is the initial salvo in Chicago’s 2015-2016 season, and if it’s an indication of what is to come, I’d be prepared for a very wild ride.