In today's turbulent political climate, it's not unusual for classic works to suddenly become painfully timely again in a way that was unexpected by the companies staging those plays.
When Elizabeth V. Newman and Stephanie Moore, the duo behind the Filigree Theatre, decided to open the company's second season with August Strindberg's "Miss Julie" (playing through Oct. 20 at the Mastrogeorge Theatre), they certainly had no clue that the production would premiere at the exact moment when the topic of women's rights had once again risen so horrifically to the forefront of the American consciousness. And there is much in "Miss Julie" that resonates with our current political moment — a woman's ability to make her own decisions about her life is brought low by a man's quest for power, while another woman sides with the man largely because of class resentment.
Of course, "Miss Julie" is hardly the story of a Supreme Court nomination and of women laughing at a victim of sexual assault. Rather, it is the much smaller tale of a love triangle between the titular Julie (the daughter of a Swedish count), the well-traveled, ambitious manservant Jean, and Christine, the estate's cook and Jean's fiancée. What begins as a playful flirtation between Julie and Jean quickly blooms into a full-fledged affair that turns sour, based in part on the intersection of class and gender roles. Jean quickly turns from charming to abusive, and Julie realizes her enormous mistake.
While Strindberg may have intended for "Miss Julie" to make the point that a man of the servant class is still superior to a woman of the upper class (the playwright was not exactly what one might call a feminist), director Newman's take on the play is decidedly less misogynistic.
In this production, Jean, as portrayed by Brennan Patrick, is less an evocative product of evolution, able to adapt to changing situations, and more of a boisterous, blustering conniver, using his seductive charms to both take advantage of women and hide himself behind them. Shonagh Smith as Julie is a tortured soul, manipulated and abused yet still maintaining an inner core of superior strength, while Diana Rose's Kristine hides a sense of simmering sensuality beneath a concern for religious respectability. In the intimate space of the Mastrogeorge Theatre, all three actors are called upon to create nuanced portraits of these characters with whom the audience literally shares a room.
As one of the earliest forays into dramatic naturalism, "Miss Julie" is ultimately a simple play, technically speaking. Filigree's production, however, harnesses that simplicity to create a very complicated look at class, gender and power, one that is painful but necessary to watch given the way those very same issues still haunt us today.