BWW Reviews: Classical Theatre Company's MISS JULIE - A Delightful Feat of Skillful Prowess
Classical Theatre Company (CTC) is opening its 5th season with August Strindberg's seminal drama, MISS JULIE. Comfortably at home in their new performance space, Studio 101 at Spring Street Studios, CTC's production of this taught and intense drama is a fantastic miasma of contemporary social issues, showing that while we've made progress in some aspects, some things are remain relatively unchanged since 1888.
CTC has moved the action of the play forward, from 1880s Sweden to 1920's Louisiana, to help modern American audiences relate to the social commentary that imbues the piece. The story takes place in a large kitchen and follows the psychological power struggle between an aristocrat, Miss Julie, and her father's valet, Jean. Both unhappy in their positions in life, Julie dreams of coming down to the ground, while Jean dreams of climbing a large tree in a forest and breeching the canopy. Christine, the household's cook, adroitly avoids being tangled up in their messy affair, stating "I know my place" and only tending to her own business.
Direction by Julia Traber is pristine. The action of The show is always in constant forward motion, never lagging or slowing as the show races towards its climax. By the end of the show, I couldn't help but question when I had started forgetting to breathe. I was that entranced and enraptured by the production. Moreover, each mental and verbal battle for social and moral supremacy is captivating, allowing the audience to delve into the richly complex thematic issues presented by the text. Each line carries the weight of examining social stratification, system justification, and whether or not gender role flexibility is viable or even exists. Julia Traber obviously understands the loaded intricacies of the show and ensures that her cast allows the audience to explore and understand them as well.
Michelle Ogletree, as Christine, opens the show as soon as the audience is allowed in the performance space. She chops vegetables and prepares dinner as the audience mingles and talks amongst themselves, setting the tone for the show. Once the lights dim and the action of the play officially gets underway, Michelle Ogletree's Christine stays steadfast and strong in her conventions and routines, understanding that her position is what it is. Her acute perception of her life ultimately gives her more power over her own life than Miss Julie or Jean has over their lives. Knowing and understanding her position, she is most impactful when explaining that once she no longer has respect for the family she works for that she is free to leave and work for another family. Certainly, this strength is nuanced and subtle, but Michelle Ogletree powerfully conveys it to the collected audience with tangible grace.
Portraying Jean, David Matranga is sublime. As an actor, he has amazing control and understanding of his body in the performance space. Being on the intimate Studio 101 stage, when showcasing anger and rage he mixed large gestures with the most miniscule, such as the twitching of his thumbs, to expertly convey every emotion. No physical action, whether large or small, is wasted by him on stage. Moreover, David Matranga adeptly showcases Jean's ability to manipulate and twist scenarios around, perfectly illustrating the characters mental acuity-the very trait that causes Jean to feel that his position in life is beneath him and drives him to climb upward socially. He masterfully moves through lengthy monologues and repulses the audience just as easily as he wins them over, creating an intricate and varied character that is intriguing at all times.
Jennifer Dean's multifarious Miss Julie is delightfully reprehensible and sympathetic. She is proficiently conniving and influences both the characters on stage and the audience's reactions to her, especially when letting real tears fall freely during the shows tense final moments. Jennifer Dean also adds an air of naivety to her portrayal, fleshing out a Miss Julie that unmercifully wields the power her position grants her with no understanding of its full repercussions on her servants. Thus, her characterization is just as compelling as it is striking.
Jim Johnson's dialect coaching is immaculate and powerful. Each of the actors uses a different dialect that further implicates their class and societal positioning, luxuriously expounding on Strindberg's powerful thematic text. Impressively, the utterly distinct and locale specific dialects never slip or falter in the performance.
Scenic Design, done by Matthew Schliff, is impeccable. As usual, he brilliantly utilizes the available space. No detail, whether subtle or large, is out of place and superiorly pleases aesthetically. Most remarkably, with MISS JULIE, he has found period appropriate kitchen tools from knives to the free standing oven and range. If the truth is in the details, then Matthew Schliff's design is utterly sincere.
Dustin Tannahill's lighting design is simplistic and nicely nuanced. He adroitly uses shifting colors to showcase the passing of time. Lastly, Dustin Tannahill's inclusion and use of bulky period bulbs with visibly hefty filament is inspired.
The costumes, designed by Clair Hummel, perfectly reflect class position and setting. Nothing distracts, detracts, or seems inappropriate.
CTC's masterful production of MISS JULIE is gripping. It successfully modernizes the piece by changing location and adding the layers of racial stratification onto it without abusing or misinterpreting the original themes, which is a delightful feat and display of skillful prowess in its own right. There is no doubt that that the smaller theatre entities in Houston are proficient at their craft; however, CTC's production showcases Houston talent at the absolute top of their game. The production never has a dull moment and magnificently moves the audience through the experience, never allowing them to get lost in the convulsion of the deceit laden characters.
CTC's MISS JULIE runs at Studio 101 until October 14, 2012. For more information and tickets please visit http://www.classicaltheatre.org or call (713) 963 – 9665.
Photos by Pin Lim.
Poster Image for CTC's production of MISS JULIE.