After it was first performed in 1889 in Denmark, Miss Julie was promptly banned throughout most of Europe. Set in the servants' kitchen of a Swedish estate, August Strindberg's one-act play depicts a lust-based relationship between an engaged servant, Jean (Matthew Kerrigan), and the Count's bombshell daughter, Miss Julie (Beth Thompson).
But what made Miss Julie so controversial when it debuted—a casual attitude toward sex and class boundaries—is hardly shocking to a modern audience. Shaking the Tree's production attempts to assert the play's relevance with contemporary staging. When Jean and Julie get intimate, the stage goes dark and the actors wail from behind a wall of boxes off to the side. Center stage, a projector plays black-and-white headshots of the two characters in ecstasy. The production seems to be simultaneously set in the 1800s and modern day. In some scenes, Jean and his fiancee, Kristine (who also works for Julie's family and is played by Kelly Godell), wear period costumes. In others, they wear Levi's jackets, band T-shirts and crop tops.
Thompson's casting as Miss Julie is superb. She's equally naive, seductive and superior. As Jean, Kerrigan oddly speaks with a Southern accent and is hypermasculine—a far cry from his flamboyant Mad Hatter in Shaking the Tree's previous production, We're All Mad Here.
As a form of power play, Jean physically assaults Julie several times. He kicks a stool at her legs, pours wine on her white dress and throws her to the floor. But Julie verbally resists, dubbing Jean "an animal" to further distinguish her superior social status. Jean, however, is insulted that his inferior standing may be what Miss Julie finds most attractive about him because it offers her a chance to rebel against her aristocratic father.
More than Miss Julie's formerly raunchy reputation, that tension between social classes is what drives the play. But the underlying sexism might be the strongest catalyst of Julie's undoing at the play's tragic end.
When she learns that her neighbors are aware of her romantic tryst, Julie finds a mob outside her window. The mob seems far more interested in condemning her than Jean. Here, we see that beauty and money are only skin deep, and gender provides a more latent divide.
SEE IT: Miss Julie plays at Shaking the Tree Warehouse, 823 SE Grant St., shaking-the-tree.com. 7:30 pm Thursday-Sunday, through June 10. $25.