IF YOU GO
What: Battle of the sexes on an 1880s Swedish estate
When: 8 p.m. Thursday, Friday & Saturday; doors open at 7 p.m.
Where: Sidney & Berne Davis Art Center, 2301 First St., downtown Fort Myers
Information: 239-333-1933 or sbdac.com
Something Else: Mature language & sexual content
On the Web: More theater news at The Stage Door blog
2301 First Street, Fort Myers, FL
Ghostbird Theatre Company's sophomore season took flight in style Wednesday. Brittney Brady's audacious production of August Strindberg's 1888 one-act "Miss Julie" bears all the hallmarks of her avant-garde style, from white-box style to literal knife-edge emotional brutality.
"Miss Julie" refers to the titular daughter of a Swedish count, a coquettish creature too bright and fun-loving for the era's cramped morals but crippled by her own weak mind. More than 100 years later, Strindberg's fascination with power, appearances and the battle of the sexes holds up in marvelous fashion.
The play, set during a hedonistic Midsummer's Eve celebration, finds Miss Julie flirting with footman Jean in the kitchen of her father's estate. Prim cook Christine, Jean's would-be fiancée, sleeps and keeps a watchful eye as the pair flirt, drink, scheme (and more) past dawn.
Brady, who directs, favors atmosphere and mood, both of which "Miss Julie" offers in spades. Sexual tension courses through the play like synthesizers on an ABBA record. She tries, with varying degrees of success, to impart every line, every gesture and every sound with meaning.
Katelyn Gravel's Kristine creates an instant, elegant mood in the opening wordless minutes as she mixes, stirs, cleans, clears and brushes. The anticipation, like foreplay, builds into something more.
Drew Scott Dietsch's Jean and Dana Lynn Frantz's Julie scream, kiss and connect on the planks of the table. Their yelling match on the floor represents the play's high point; I wish it didn't come an hour in, but the furious, fiery moment jolts the night to life. In moments like these, I can see where the show is going - and I want to take this particular carriage ride to 1880s Sweden.
Brady's "Miss Julie" feels designed to arrive weighty, heavy, laden with anticipatory desire, like a rubber band stretched taut, the characters living, working, breathing as if their lives are at the maximum edge of their very existence. It's a smart, inventive plan, and for portions of the night, Brady's cast gets there. Yet, the show never manages to get all the parts moving in the same direction at the same time.
Creative design often features in experimental theatre. Ghostbird uses a rectangular space at one side of the Sidney & Berne Davis Art Center. Brady drapes white linens (in desperate need of an iron) to frame a simple kitchen set, creating an ethereal, dreamlike surface upon which floats sex, sadness ambition and shame.
The space suggests the possibility of dreams, hopes and rough-hewn, half-hidden desires. I love the creativity, but shadows from the back-lighting make it difficult to see actors' faces; the wash of light destroys any nuance of expression and detail.
Brady also places several key scenes on the floor, as well as the count's tall black boots, a symbol of his looming authority. Heads craned left and right throughout the night trying to glimpse these elements - and oftentimes the actors themselves.
Still, the play delivers where it counts - grabbing the throat like Jean's footman with his veneer of civility and literally choking the prettiness right out of "Miss Julie" in a shocking maneuver right out on the table amidst a tumble of beer mugs and four franc bottles of wine.
Philip Heubeck's original score, at once lofty and delicate, like a tiny songbird trying to match the soaring flight of eagles even though its chest might burst from both desire and effort, recalls Poe's "Tell-Tale Heart." So might Julie and Jean, repressed as they are by custom, by circumstance and their own failings.
The knives rise and fall many times in "Miss Julie." Each one represents a slice of power, carved out of someone else's heart. A delicate greenfinch loses his head. "Miss Julie" loses her heart. Does she lose more?
Swedish Chef, Swedish meatballs or Swedish Fish? Email me, email@example.com, find me on Twitter at @napleschris or read my Stage Door theater blog. You can also sign up to receive the Stage Door blog via email.