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Review: Miss Julie wows with complex characters, sexual chemistry

Miss Julie continues at the Blue Bridge’s Quadra Street theatre to June 11 and is well worth seeing.
Melissa Taylor, left, Stephie Bright, back, and Kholby Wardell perform in Blue Bridge Repertory Theatre's production of Miss Julie, at the Roxy Theatrein Victoria through June 11. DARREN STONE, TIMES COLONIST

The fact an old chestnut like Miss Julie still seems relevant and fresh — especially in a post-feminist age — seems almost a miracle.

Blue Bridge Repertory Theatre has just opened a briskly-paced revival of August Strindberg’s 1888 drama. Solidly acted by Kholby Wardell and Melissa Taylor, the show is directed by Mercedes Bátiz-Benét with a welcome emphasis on physicality.

Miss Julie has aged remarkably well, given Strindberg’s antiquated ideas about women and class. There are oodles of retrograde, even nasty ideas on offer — and no doubt some still prevail in modern society. What makes the play relevant and worthwhile is the complexity of its characters and the lean, take-no-prisoners dialogue that drives home themes both powerful and primal.

In the preface to his play, Strindberg describes Miss Julie as “a half-woman” and a “man hater.” Why? She’s a proto-feminist who questions the prevailing 19th-century notion that women must be subservient to men.

With misogynistic zeal, the playwright paints his Miss Julie as a man-eating she-monster. She fantasizes about putting her valet Jean “down like an animal” and then quips: “I believe I could drink out of your skull, bathe my feet in your breast and eat your heart cooked whole.”

In short, Miss Julie (played by Taylor) doesn’t sound like she’d be much fun at parties. Then again, Jean (played by Wardell), isn’t much to brag about either. More on that later.

At a staff party at her father’s estate, the pair take refuge in Jean’s bedroom to avoid the scandal of being seen together. Naturally they have sex — after which Jean stops playing the servant and acts like an obnoxious frat-boy who’s scored big time. Because Miss Julie has revealed her sexual appetite — and because she won’t bankroll his plan to become a hotelier — he compares her to an “animal” and a prostitute (such attitude would be common in Strindberg’s time).

That’s nothing compared to what comes next. At play’s end, Miss Julie — realizing she’s a fallen woman poised to become a societal outcast — contemplates suicide. Jean, being the stand-up guy he is, helpfully whips out the razor blade he’s been sharpening and hands it over. The audience is left wondering what’s going to happen.

Clearly there are no winners here. Happily for us, Strindberg has created three-dimensional characters that hook us for the entirety of this 90-minute play. Miss Julie is a failed romantic who plays the grand lady, yet also rebels at the restrictions of being upper-class (she likes to quaff beer and dance with peasants). And while Jean’s a great big jerk (Strindberg wouldn’t have viewed him as such) he’s also a clear-eyed realist with considerable empathy for Miss Julie’s plight. These are real, complicated people.

Kudos, too, goes to the direction and acting. Director Bátiz-Benét understands a potent sexual chemistry must exist between Miss Julie and Jean to make the play work. The air was thick with this on Thursday night, especially in the early scenes.

At one point Taylor pulled her gown past her stocking to reveal a flash of thigh while commanding a kneeling Jean to kiss her feet. Often, the couple conversed in profile with their faces almost touching — a powerful device, if a trifle overused.

The exploration of physicality extended to Wardell moving in a stiff, geometrical manner while playing the dutiful servant — a visual representation of the lower-class prison in which Jean exists. This contrasted with his louche, sprawling poses while swigging wine with post-coital satisfaction. Wardell was particularly successful in capturing the sliver of malice and superiority lurking behind Jean’s oily charm while seducing Miss Julie.

Taylor convinced in the title role, entering the stage with an aristocrat’s regal bearing, shoulders well back. Balancing Miss Julie’s haughtiness and fragility is tricky, yet she managed it. Stephie Bright also impressed as the cook, finding her character’s curious blend of strength, faith and sanguinity — with a little hypocrisy mixed in for good measure.

This period adaption boasts a simple yet functional set of the servants’ kitchen. Miss Julie’s spectacular gowns are particularly notable — well cut and beautifully detailed.

Miss Julie continues at the Blue Bridge’s Quadra Street theatre to June 11 and is well worth seeing.

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