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Pain of Love

Born Under a Bad Sign: Shannon Kenny and Leith Burke as Strindberg's ill-fated lovers in "Miss Julie."

SJ Rep reworks Strindberg's 'Miss Julie'

IN HER PROGRAM notes for Miss Julie, San José Repertory Theatre's artistic director Timothy Near credits Emily Mann with adapting August Strindberg's script from a misogynist piece into a more palatable romantic tragedy. Actually, although Mann did rewrite some of the more cutting bits of Strindberg's dialogue, the most significant changes in the play's tone are the result of Near's direction.

Written in 1888, Miss Julie was banned in Strindberg's native Sweden for its strong language and sexual imagery. For the most part, Mann left this objectionable language alone in her adaptation; if anything, she strengthened the innuendo. The play's ill-fated lovers--Miss Julie (Shannon Kenny) and her valet Jean (Leith M. Burke)--share a strong physical attraction and not much else. When they're not making love, they're making war of both the sexes and the classes, and each of them fires off some nasty salvos that could potentially wound the other deeply.

But under Near's direction, Kenny and Burke make it clear that their characters' spite and malice stem mostly from frustration and self-loathing. Scenes in which Strindberg originally had Jean tormenting Miss Julie--whom the playwright described as "the half-woman, the man-hater ... selling herself for power, honors, decorations and diplomas, as formerly she used to for money"--have been softened so that Jean's depth of feeling for his mistress is never in doubt.

Ironically, this softening makes Kenny's performance as Miss Julie seem more strident. Granted, her character has every reason to be confused about her sexual identity, having been raised by a mother who hated men and a father who grew to hate women as a result. Still, when this confusion overtakes her completely, she retains very little humanity, and it's to Kenny's credit that Miss Julie doesn't come off as a caricature.

The class difference between the pair is augmented by Kristin (Valerie de Jose), Miss Julie's cook and Jean's lover. While Jean makes no bones about his desire to become a gentleman, Kristin accepts her station and plays the necessary games to ensure that the barrier between her and her mistress remains intact. This includes keeping her mouth shut about how Jean's betrayal has hurt her, but de Jose is marvelous at conveying these feelings with minimal words.

While the Rep is working from Mann's barely revised script, the biggest change has been made by Near. Rather than having Miss Julie commit suicide off stage, the director decided to have the character slit her wrists while in a Juliet-like embrace with Jean. It is in this final moment that the tragedy of their situation really hits home: As Jean says, "It's horrible, but it's the only possible ending."

Anne Gelhaus

Miss Julie plays Tuesday­Friday at 8pm, Saturday at 5 and 9pm, Sunday at 2 and 7pm and Wednesday (June 12) at noon through June 16 at the Montgomery Theater, San Carlos and Market streets, San Jose. Tickets are $16.50­$28.50. (408/291-2255)

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From the May 30-June 5, 1996 issue of Metro

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