Swedish Passion Under a Cuban Sun

The names have been changed and so has the setting, but no one will fail to recognize August Strindberg's neurotic heroine and her boy toy in New Theatre's unrelenting and compassionate production of Miss Julie. By transferring it to colonial Latin America, artistic director Rafael de Acha recasts the Swedish...
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The names have been changed and so has the setting, but no one will fail to recognize August Strindberg's neurotic heroine and her boy toy in New Theatre's unrelenting and compassionate production of Miss Julie. By transferring it to colonial Latin America, artistic director Rafael de Acha recasts the Swedish playwright's masterpiece in a Hispanic vein, maybe to prove 19th-century class struggle knows no native tongue. De Acha's vision of a Latin Strindberg, replete with an off-stage Afro-Cuban bacchanal, doesn't exactly offer up a brash directorial statement, but it does reinforce the notion that the influential playwright exerts dramatic power over us long after the upheaval of the Victorian social conventions that inspired him.

One holiday evening in the kitchen of a large plantation, the tipsy Miss Julia appears in search of Juan, the valet of her father, the Count. Until this point in time, Juan's pressing concern has been to shine the Count's boots and to take part in the dancing that marks Saint John's Eve, a midsummer holiday of frolicking and rum. Prodded on by the evening's high spirits, her own hormones, and her pyrotechnic personality, Julia seduces Juan, who succumbs even though his girlfriend Cristina is sleeping in the next room. Nearby the boots stand guard, as it were, symbols of the old colonial order that is thrown into chaos by the ardor of Julia and Juan.

This is not the first time, in theater or in history, that an aristocratic lady has offered herself to a groom, of course, but it's still one of the most tragically rendered. The notion of a woman who has "fallen" because she grants sexual favors to an employee will strike contemporary audiences as a bit archaic. Nonetheless the scent of scandal is just outside the door where Juan and Julia make love. Servants are already ridiculing Julia in song. But though the story revolves around a passion between two individuals forbidden by convention to mix, Strindberg brings these two characters together for reasons more complex than mere examination of upsetting the status quo.

It's no coincidence, however, that by swapping juices, Juan and Julia also trade social roles. Before the seduction Juan is a plaything, whom Julia orders to please her. "Now kiss my shoe and everything will be perfect," she insists as they share a drink. Afterward, because he is the one who actually understands how the world works, Juan is in charge. It is he who suggests that they run away together, go to a new city and open a hotel. His idea is that Julia would be a mere ornament while he would run the establishment. Products of Strindberg's infamous naturalism, Juan and Julia navigate the world without the benefit of Freudian psychology and so their exploitation of motives is raw and primitive. "What terrible power drew me to you?" demands Julia.

The story fits well into the political landscape of late 19th-century Cuba because it too was a place of great social upheaval. As de Acha's program notes put it, "We transplant it to a Caribbean island nation -- think Cuba or Puerto Rico or Santo Domingo -- where classes, races, religions, and the sheer physical realities of summer heat and geographic isolation replicate the very similar elements in Strindberg's Calvinist, sexually repressed, provincial Sweden." No argument there. In addition Doug Molash's set, Marina Pareja's costumes and M. Anthony Reimer's sound design and original music make the transformation of a Swedish story into a dark Latin American fairy tale entirely believable.

What's more difficult to negotiate is Strindberg's message to those of us living in a universe in which the social changes he refers to have already taken place. Or have they? (I'm not losing sleep over the notion that women are equal to men, but in many parts of the world this subject is apparently still up for debate.) Strindberg, a self-proclaimed misogynist, created in the title character one of the most fascinating parts for women the modern theater has to offer. A man-hater who is as capable as any male, she is man's worst fantasy and a sexual prize. Come to think of it, that does sound modern.

Undeniably a powerful story (its sexual shenanigans are flavored with fascinating revelations from the characters' pasts), Miss Julie has lasted a century in part because it shows us characters who are victims of irrational circumstances, still the main subject on theater stages. In Juan and Julia, we also see the beginnings of contemporary dramatic relationships. Strindberg, Ibsen, and Chekhov freed the theater from the light comedies and randy melodramas that preceded their work. They proffered instead a gritty drawing-room realism in which dialogue substituted for action. Julia's nervous attempts to exercise her sexuality through awkward flirtation are as crucial as the sex act itself. The couple talk to each other on stage; the copulating takes place behind closed doors.

The prototype of such lethal couples as George and Martha in Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and Stanley and Blanche in Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire, Juan and Julia are astoundingly cruel to one another. And their conversation is surprisingly modern. When Juan asks Julia if perhaps the servant Cristina has feelings, she replies, "No. A menial is a menial." To which Juan replies (referring to Julia), "And a whore is a whore." The pair can't decide whether to make love or tear each other apart, and so they do both. Because this behavior is all too familiar to us, we can look beyond the limited 19th-century depiction of Julia as a ruined woman and see her as someone we might know.

While recognition of ourselves on stage is as good a reason as any to go to the theater, I'm not entirely convinced that setting Miss Julie in last century's Latin clothes is a way to make the story particularly urgent. The Latin America we see on the New Theatre stage is as remote to the one we know today as Strindberg's Sweden of the last century is to us. Nonetheless the production is a powerful one, with heroic performances from actors who spend the better part of two hours diving into psychological horror.

On the opening weekend, neither Iris Delgado, who plays Julia, nor Israel Garcia, as Juan, had found many ways to make the respective character his or her own. Not that many actors ever have. These roles demand stylization woven with naturalism, something that's almost impossible to pull off. Both Delgado and Garcia are appealing and intelligent young performers, however, and here's hoping they come to grip the audience nearly as tightly as the playwright does.

Actress Delgado also gets a chance to shine in the curtain raiser, an obscure 20-minute sketch, also by Strindberg. Titled The Stronger, it's a comedy about Miss X and Miss Y (Delgado and Marta Velasco, also playing servant Cristina in Miss Julie) who meet in a café. Both have been involved with the same man, now the husband of Miss X. A self-absorbed harridan, she interrupts the quiet meal of Miss Y, rambling on and barely noticing that her companion never replies. As the silent party, Delgado is a model of restraint and economy. As the chatterbox, Velasco gives an effective voice to Strindberg's comic side.

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