Intimate Theatre

at the Swedish American Museum Center

Geniuses are rarely pleasant people in the ordinary social sense, but August Strindberg continues to hold the prize for the one with whom you would least want to share an office. Although recognized as Sweden’s most prominent playwright (in most theater history texts, Sweden’s only playwright) and certainly one of the first to break with the 19th-century melodrama forms in favor of a drama based on realism and the recent discoveries of Sigmund Freud, Strindberg bordered on psychotic, which made for distortions in the “reality” he purported to depict (in contrast with the rationalism of his contemporaries Henrik Ibsen and George Bernard Shaw). His own childhood as one of 12 children in an impoverished family, the loss of his mother when he was only 13, and his father’s subsequent marriage to their young housekeeper all left Strindberg with an idealized view of the female sex, which emerges in his early plays as a vehement mistrust of all women who do not meet his impossible standard. That mistrust is divided between contempt for the submissive “female slave, spineless and phlegmatic . . . bovinely unconscious of her own hypocrisy”and fear and hatred for the dominating “man-hating half-woman type [that] forces itself on others, selling itself for power . . . as it formerly sold itself for money . . . propagat[ing] its misery on the following generation.” That is how Strindberg describes the two main female characters of Miss Julie.

Performing under the sponsorship of the Swedish American Museum Center, the Intimate Theatre company was almost duty bound to produce a play by Sweden’s foremost playwright, even if that national hero was possessed of a cosmological view as easily digested by enlightened intellects as a pound of bird gravel. To make Miss Julie speak to a modern American audience in any way is to do it well, and Intimate Theatre manages–barely–to pull it off most of the time, through sheer dogged conviction.

The play’s two protagonists are the title character, a countess bent on stepping down from her social station, and Jean, her father’s valet, bent on stepping up from his. On a midsummer’s eve they meet in the count’s kitchen for a night of drunk talk (“You can spit on me, but I can’t wipe it on you”). In the end they realize that there is no escape from the social conditions that enslave them–a discovery with which the pragmatic Jean can live, albeit uncomfortably, but the aristocratic Miss Julie cannot.

As indicated by his preface to the play, Strindberg intended Miss Julie to represent the triumph of the vigorous Jean, who aspires to greater things (but whose aspirations take the form of bullying his plebeian fiancee while pandering to his betters), over the decadent, power-obsessed Julie, who squanders her money and freedom on self-debasing pastimes. Director Daniel Wirth appears to see the conflict as not so much between genders as between classes–and not so much the result of actual differences in class behavior as the manner in which each class is idealized by the other. Midsummer’s eve is traditionally a magic time when lovers find enchantment, adventure, and unexpected good fortune; and both Julie and Jean, whether they realize it or not, are looking to one another as the liberation from their dreary lots. Come dawn, however, Julie sees her Prince Charming as the conceited, self-serving boor that he is–and Jean sees his fairy princess as the frustrated, hormone-driven neurotic that she is. When Julie recoils in horror at the thought that she has given herself to such a man, she is lamenting the destruction of her notion that a commoner might be a gentleman in disguise. Likewise, when Jean denounces her as a “whore,” he is not speaking of her but of the icon through whose grace he hoped he would be elevated to what he feels is his proper position. In a comedy, the acknowledgment of each other’s flawed humanity would open the way to new understanding of themselves and acceptance of the world in general, but in Strindberg’s grim universe, there can be no such redemption. “If they’re not any better than we are, then there’s nothing to strive for,” says Jean, as the play ends with him obediently responding to his master’s call and Miss Julie going off with his razor to commit suicide.

Despite its pessimistic conclusion, this is a dilemma with which modern audiences can identify–our divorce rate attests to the number of lovers who discover that the frog is still only a frog (or worse, has changed into a toad). While there is no way to completely take the edge off Strindberg’s virulent misanthropy (“I’d like to see your whole sex swimming in a sea of blood!” Julie shrieks at one point), Wirth’s interpretation suggests other dimensions with which to justify the choice of this play (rather than, say, the work of Par Lagerkvist or Lars Forssell or any of the other modern Swedish playwrights) for Intimate Theatre’s initial production.

The conversion of the Swedish American Museum Center’s basement to a playing area–by means of folding chairs, a few lights clamped to ceiling pipes, and many curtains fashioned from bed sheets–gives the production an unfortunately amateurish look, for which the unsubsidized company is not necessarily to be held responsible (unlike the decision to have two intermissions, stretching the running time of the two one-acts to a little under three hours, and a ludicrously literal decapitation of a patently fake canary, complete with blood spurting from the incision).

Though a little shaky with her lines opening night, Truda Stockenstrom makes a poised and regal Miss Julie (whose very dignity works against the character’s eventual subjugation and self-loathing, but that’s Strindberg’s script). Paul Friedman, while clearly a less experienced actor, is an equally stubborn and unbending Jean. And Ruth Jacobson delivers a nicely concentrated performance as Kristine, the simple servant girl who loves him for what he is.

Strindberg’s The Stronger, under the direction of Randy Colburn, is being presented as a curtain raiser. Although Claire DeCoster makes a fine display of oral-interpretation flourishes and subtextual gymnastics, the essential awkwardness of the piece–a 15-minute monologue in which a woman battles to reclaim her husband from his “other woman,” who stares back at her in passive silence–renders the conflict more irritating than moving. A fight in which only one opponent is fighting quickly ceases to hold attention.

The courageous and enthusiastic Intimate Theatre has chosen two extremely ambitious pieces with which to make their professional debut. If these do not succeed entirely, they nonetheless represent an auspicious beginning.