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Miss Julie

  • Theater
  • 2 out of 5 stars
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Time Out says

2 out of 5 stars

Miss Julie: Theater review by Helen Shaw

Let’s cut to the chase: Do not, under any circumstances, see the Lincoln Center Festival’s Miss Julie (through Sunday). Many bad things happen in this production—pointless video, wrongheaded adaptation, sloppy-drunk acting and misuse of a small dog. Worst, though, is the application of clay feet to two theatrical idols. Thomas Ostermeier, the provocative German director, and Evgeny Mironov, the exquisite Russian actor and artistic director of the Theatre of Nations, have brought out the worst in each other.

Miss Julie (1888) is a tricky, tricky classic. It’s repetitive and rankly misogynistic; Strindberg wrote it in a froth of rage, and you can still see the spittle on the pages. That passion does give it a kind of gleam—the author’s hectic confusion of his own neuroses with a “naturalistic” (read: pseudo-Darwinist) understanding of sexual attraction gave rise to juicy, if unbelievable, characters. No one on earth fights like a Strindberg couple; the velociraptors are all extinct.

This tortured adolescent quality may be why Julie remains so popular, even if its dramatic engine depends on a now-distant Victorian mind-set. Jean (Mironov) works for Miss Julie (Chulpan Khamatova), and their violation of the servant-mistress compact—not to mention the frank admission of sex outside of marriage—sent prudish 19th-century Swedes into fits.

That social compression is the play’s crucible; crack it at your peril. Yet Ostermeier’s sleek production splits it wide open: adaptor Mikhail Durnenkov updates the scene to modern-day Russia and costumer Gabriele Feringer puts Julie in stripper heels. The first 30 minutes still work, but everything after Julie’s “fall” from virginity becomes arrant nonsense. The shrill party gal in this world wouldn’t freak out after she slept with her driver; she’d Snapchat him a pic of her boobs.

So the show is a dud, but how did it get that way? Mironov is an actor with razor-sharp technique: The 48-year-old with the eerily young face has played Caligula and the False Dmitri with different temperatures of icy gorgeousness. Onstage you can see his mind at work. Here he emphasizes Jean’s fussiness and has several nicely calculating moments with his fiancé, Christine (Julia Peresild). But Ostermeier’s mise en scène requires louche Cassavetes–style acting rather than the new classicism. (Khamatova is frankly unbearable, but she’s being forced to play a caricature, so it’s hardly her fault.)

Ostermeier himself, perhaps flummoxed by working in Russia, has fallen back on clichés, including ill-lit live-feed video and by-the-numbers violence set to loud electronica. This feels like work from his lazy Cat on a Hot Tin Roof period, when you could set your watch by when he had characters make a mess. He does have more interesting tools; his extraordinary An Enemy of the People (at BAM in 2013) showed us that, but he doesn’t use them here.

You can still see the outlines of solid thinking in the idea of the project itself. An adventurous Russian actor brings a European director to Moscow, and together they challenge the sexually puritanical theater scene. Great! Durnenkov investigates the Russian nouveau riche, simultaneously sympathizing with and condemning its vulgarity. Interesting! The adaptation even gives Jean a past “in the war”—an interpolation that may actually dare, in Putin’s Russia, to point to Ukraine. Brave! But all these ideas flounder on the rocks of the staging itself.

About two-thirds of the way through, revelers burst into the stainless steel kitchen. These people violate the tenets of the adaptation’s world; though supposedly guests of Jean and Christine’s, they never interact with their hosts, nor do they share their class-consciousness. But these plug-in players are revealing in yet another way. Ostermeier—desperate to create heat in a chemistry-free production—has the young people whip off their clothes, grind against the wall, fling trash on the floor and have sex standing up against the open fridge. But we can see behind them onto a shelf, where a glass of orange juice sits waiting for the next scene. It’s emblematic of Ostermeier’s fake mayhem, his ersatz madness. Those supernumeraries bang away, but somehow the juice never spills a drop.—Helen Shaw

New York City Center (Off Broadway). By August Strindberg. Adapted by Mikhail Durnenkov. Directed by Thomas Ostermeier. In Russian with English supertitles. With Chulpan Khamatova, Evgeny Mironov, Julia Peresild. Running time: 1hr 45mins. No intermission.

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212-721-6500
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