With Miss Julie, August Strindberg made one of the most exciting and volatile contributions to the repertoire in the long history of the theater. In the manifesto with which he prefaced the play, Strindberg set out some extraordinary requirements for the new theater of “naturalism” he had in mind: no footlights, no stage makeup, events happening in real time, absolute candor about such socially awkward subjects as blasphemy, lust, and various bodily functions, and, finally, the creation and depiction of the naturalist character-a kind of amalgam of the tragic hero and the protagonist of the 19th-century novel-a complex person with even more complex motives. The result of this stylistic revolution was a play that remains to this day disturbing in its implications. The title character harbors, then acts on, a variety of feelings, both sexual and sadistic-first toward her fiance, and then toward the servant of the house who becomes her lover and antagonist.
The brilliant Los Angeles director Stephen Sachs has come up with an idea that seems so inevitable, one wonders why it has never been done before. His new production of Miss Julie, which opens tonight in Santa Barbara for a two-week run at Center Stage Theater, re-sets the play in the thick of the American civil rights struggle-Mississippi in 1964. The stormy sexual affair between an upper-class woman and her father’s chauffeur becomes interracial, adding a harrowing layer of potentially violent consequences and complex historical implications. In the title role, Tracy Middendorf has received ecstatic notices from the Los Angeles critics, who cite her “brash, sultry, and seductive” performance as the show’s “human lightning rod.”
Chuma Gault is John, the servant who alternately submits to and dominates the daring young lead. His fiancee, the family cook, is played by Judith Moreland. Sachs, who not only created the adaptation but also directs it, is probably best known to Santa Barbara audiences for his sterling direction of Athol Fugard’s Exits and Entrances with Morlan Higgins. Those who venture south for their theater will know that he is a favorite among Los Angeles theater audiences, and a founder of the distinguished Fountain Theatre there. His most recent success, prior to the current production of Miss Julie, was a staging of poet Anne Carson’s translation of the Hippolytos of Euripides that took place in the Getty Villa’s new amphitheatre. Hippolytos, which many in the Santa Barbara theater community got to see thanks to SBT’s involvement, was fantastic-a truly once-in-a-lifetime experience. As for Miss Julie, in the confines of Center Stage, expect it to absolutely sizzle, and plan ahead, because a show of this quality in a venue of this size is almost sure to sell out.
Miss Julie will open at the Center Stage Theater on Thursday, May 17, and will play Tuesday through Sunday for two weeks: May 18, 19, 22, 23, 24, 25, and 26 at 8 p.m., and Sundays, May 20 and 27, at 2 p.m. For tickets or more information, call 963-0408 or visit centerstagetheater.org.