Arts & Events

New: THEATER REVIEW: Strindberg's 'Miss Julie' & Two Short Plays

By Ken Bullock
Sunday February 23, 2014 - 10:18:00 AM

Marin Onstage, which put on a remarkable version of Ibsen's modern classic, 'Doll House,' reviewed here in November—and all the more remarkable as a small, independent company taking on such a work and giving it a fresh, compelling staging—continues their season of plays about women with three very different short plays, including the great—and not so short—'Miss Julie,' one of the salvos Strindberg directed in part at Ibsen, a decade after 'Doll House,' one of the first truly modern plays, displaying in rare, exciting dramatic form with a small cast both the war of the sexes and the class struggle. 

The other two plays, staged in the little theater at the old St. Vincent's School off 101, across from Marinwood, north of San Rafael and just south of Novato (it's worth going early to see this almost pristine spot, with the Silveira Ranch and other fields stretching from the freeway through eucalyptus, past the Mission-style church and arcades, down to the Bay), seem much simpler, but there's a great breadth of theatrical range, of social experience, to be found in this selection. 

'Trifles,' 1916, directed by Paul Abbott, is by Susan Glaspell, a mainstay of the Provincetown Players, that seminal group out of which emerged many important American theater folk, including Eugene O'Neill. Two women, accompanying their husbands who're investigating a possible murder at a lonely homestead farm, come to their own conclusions—and, in a very real way, their own verdict—in this small gem of indirection under the shadow of sexist prejudice. The ensemble gets across what on the surface is a homespun tale that casts light on rural America of the early past century. Marilyn Hughes is particularly effective. 

Bertolt Brecht's 'The Jewish Wife,' part of the playwright's 1938 cycle, ''Fear & Misery in the Third Reich' (aka 'Private Life of the Master Race'), begins with a monologue by the title character, trying to find a way to explain to her husband why she's leaving Nazi Germany, and the rather different situation that results when the husband comes into the room as she's packing. Stephanie Ann Foster—who played Nora in 'Doll House' with such theatrical verve—directs Susan Stein as the wife. 

Stein has excellent stage presence, complemented by Jim McFadden's deliberately low-key husband. But Brecht's point is made less in the emoting of the wife—openly as she rehearses her explanation, with a lid on as she improvises her exit—but in the disparity between the two, in the distance between a couple who have grown apart over social issues of dire import, met with inattention—and in the fate of a gifted fur coat ... will it be brought along unseasonably on a supposedly short trip? If the conditions of the emotions aren't accented theatrically, there's the danger of melodrama, Brecht's bete noir in theater. This production barely skirts it, despite its attributes. 

'Miss Julie,' 1888, is very much a play of its time—and one of great theatrical revelation, true excitement, for anyone lucky enough to catch a production that connects directly with the issues at stake for the characters—and with the audience. This is that kind of production. Directed by Ron Nash, whose adaptation and direction of 'Doll House' was brilliantly alive, and featuring Stephanie Ann Foster in the title role, the action is unrelenting from beginning to end—even when "äction" is in the Aristotelian sense of maybe a few words that get the ball rolling, start a train of thought in the audience. 

Foster plays the mercurial Julie as a fascinating, complex creature, flirtacious and hard, alluring and forbidding, changing in a second with a slight gesture or expression, often matching the fears or desires of her partner in crime, the servant Jean, well-played by Michael Walraven, emphasizing the vanity of a servant who is proud of both his own knowledge of the upper classes (and his own difference, as he imagines it, from other servants) as well as for his contempt for the masters (as well as his own class). 

The play takes place on the saint's day that opens summer, a transparently pagan holiday, with ghe servants drinking and dancing, the master gone—and Miss julie joining in, looking for trouble. Jean, with his "fiancee," the stolid, church-going house cook (well-acted by Jocelyn Roddie), tries to stay out of the action, but is sucked in deeper than either he or his temptress could've imagined, provoking a storm of reversals, arguments and attempts at tenderness, confessions and accusations. In the brilliant interlude, when Jean and Miss Julie retreat from the stage so as not to be seen together, they're overheard within by two carousing peasants, played with energy and humor by Arden Kilzer and Bill McClave. 

The end comes in more than tragic terms, the kind of hyper-tragedy, amid black humor, that Strindberg helped introduce to modern theater. Marin Onstage's relentless production shows what Antonin Artaud—the first to direct Strindberg's more abstract plays in a non-realistic style in the late 1920s, when he spoke of what he thought of as true theater by comparing two Greek tragedians: "In Aeschylus, Man is very evil ["mal"—also, sick], but he is still a little god. Then Euripides comes ... the floodgates are down ... we wnader on swampy ground—and we don't know anymore where we are." 

With 'Miss Julie' comes that rare excitement in theater—watching change happen right in front of your eyes ... and never being sure exactly where it's going. 

Thursdays through Saturdays at 8, Sundays at 3 through March 2. Little Theater, 1 St. Vincent Road, St. Vincent exit, off Highway 101, north of San Rafael. $10-$18. (415) 290-1433;