Not everything that’s “politically correct” is bad. That’s one lesson of the Classic Stage Company’s current presentation of August Strindberg’s 1889 play Miss Julie (at the Lynn F. Angelson Theater in New York through March 10). Retitled Mies Julie and reset in a remote stretch of South Africa’s Transvaal province, the play has been skillfully rewritten by Yaël Farber. Aided by a superb production, this version of the Strindberg classic restores the shock value in the story that its first author intended, but which is now all too frequently absent.
This version of the Strindberg classic Miss Julie restores the shock value in the story that its first author intended, but which is now all too frequently absent.
Multiple ambitions spurred Strindberg to write Miss Julie. One was to craft a part for his wife, the actress Siri von Essen. Like the character she played, von Essen was an aristocrat and feminist attached to a man of culture, albeit one who was well aware that he was a product of the lower classes. (Strindberg’s 1909 memoir is titled The Son of a Servant.) That sense of transgression in the meeting and mating of people from different stations no longer has the sting that it once did, but this production revives it once more with extraordinary force.
To produce that jolt, Farber makes many changes. In her rewriting, the third character in the three-hander is not the fiancée of John, the male antagonist, but his mother, and both of the workers on the estate are black peasants employed by a rich Afrikaner farmer. Although the daughter of the unseen landowner is still drawn to her male servant because she wants to engage in a bit of slumming, in this take there is the added taboo of interracial romance.
Farber has garnished this stew with a fair amount of anti-colonial and anti-white politics, and she has changed the evening during which the events take place from the Swedish midsummer festivities to the South African Freedom Day, the date of the nation’s first post-apartheid elections. But if Farber felt compelled to toss in bien pensant political views, there’s no denying that she also arranged her tale with economy and flair, greatly bolstered by her superb lead actors, Elise Kibler and James Udom.
Kibler gave a raw and moving performance as Julie. Udom, a recent Yale Drama School graduate of enormous gifts, is by turns vulnerable and frightening as John. He commands the stage in a way that is precocious and exceptional.
This production, directed by Shariffa Ali, contains a lot of nudity and a measure of gore. While this is partly obscured by Stacey Derosier’s artfully dim stage lighting, as the show is staged in the round, audiences should be prepared for a production that is certainly not appropriate for children.
Admirers of Strindberg can see another of his plays, also at the Lynn F. Angelson Theater: Mies Julie is staged in repertory with Conor McPherson’s new adaptation of Strindberg’s Dance of Death.
Sadly, the daring on display at Classic Stage is entirely lacking in Eddie and Dave, now at the Atlantic Theater Company (at Atlantic Stage 2 in New York through February 17). A lengthy improv sketch of the sort one might see on an off night at the Upright Citizens Brigade, it has been extended to a ninety-five-minute run time. Its subject is the conflict within the heavy metal rock band Van Halen between the guitarist Eddie (Amy Staats, also the playwright) and the lead singer David Lee Roth (Megan Hill). All but one of the parts in the play are performed in drag, and that’s about as far as the humor goes. I saw a matinee of the show, and this may partly explain the audience’s lackluster response. Still, there were few laughs, and the applause at the end was tepid.
It’s a shame that Staats doesn’t manage to bring her characters, or the tension between them, to life. There’s the potential in Van Halen’s story for something much more thoughtful than what’s on offer.
Staats’s background is in comic acting, and she brings an appealing vulnerability when she’s on the stage that effectively contrasts with the unsubtle scene-stealers playing alongside her. But Staats’s approach to storytelling is mostly paint-by-numbers, and some key elements of the tale are missing. The audience is told that Eddie Van Halen was trained as a child by a father who hoped his son would be a classical piano virtuoso, and we gradually learn that Eddie Van Halen regards much pop music with disdain. Implied, but not stated outright, is just how little he thinks of David Lee Roth as a singer.
There’s the potential in Van Halen’s story for something much more thoughtful than what’s on offer.
As this tells us much about pop music as a business and a phenomenon, this point might have been worth laying bare. Van Halen lore includes many revealing instances of the band’s musical quality conflicting with its celebrity appeal. For example, the guitarist Van Halen frequently had to adjust his playing to compensate for David Lee Roth’s apparent inability to sing on key. Mentioning this detail would have led us to a larger point that’s often suggested but never stated outright: the business of rock ’n’ roll has very little to do with music.
That is an important part of Van Halen’s story. But Staats never takes anything she’s saying seriously, just as she never takes her characters seriously. While many rock musicians are high on drugs, she’s high on ironic posing. What the audience is left with is definitely a drag.