It's hard to understand why playwright-director-composer Josh Chambers says his take on August Strindberg's Miss Julie is set in 2008 in Southern California. Sure, sex and alcohol play huge roles in the exposition of the characters (just like they do in real life around here); the punked-out male figure says “fuck” a lot, and the black and white costumes and sets could easily illustrate the socioeconomic differences among people in a place like L.A., where Chambers and his actors are based. But today, those qualities are all over the place in America's urban centers. If Chambers meant to ground his adaptation in all things SoCal, I'm afraid his point is partially lost.
But that's just me. The reality is that there's an awful lot to like in this current Sledgehammer Theatre entry, and you don't need to know that much about the original script to enjoy it. In Miss Julie, Chambers has found an ideal play to advance the notion that personal growth isn't without its hazards, and the era be damned. Strindberg crafted his central characters amid wholesale sexual repression in his late 19th-century Sweden—and while that trait isn't necessarily as rampant in modern America, mistaken impressions certainly are. In this case, they lead to two people's utter destruction, and Chambers correctly figures that such downfalls have nothing to do with time and place. Julie (Claire Smith) heads a household comprising servants John (William Popp) and Kristine (Charlotte Di Gregorio); it's Midsummer Eve, Sweden's one crazy night of the year, and Julie's thinking maybe she wants to make it even crazier, with John's—uh—assistance. But what follows is a series of revelations on the pair's pasts, lurid confessions fueling the psychological warfare to come. Each party, it turns out, is mistaken about the other's motives and desires in life; the sunrise brings a cataclysmic collapse in both the relationship and the other's faith in humanity.
Strindberg was writing for a decidedly nationalist audience, and he took a few public hits for his exploitation of such private discord. He also didn't give a frig, any more than Chambers has let mainstream taste interfere with his vision. The music is loud, stark, simplistic and wonderfully ironic against this multi-leveled battle of wits; those proliferate blacks and whites serve to polarize the two personalities, especially as the principals jockey for position in an elaborate dance around and on a single chair. As often as not, Kristine is decked out in a pig suit, banging cookware and quaffing wine in mockery of the whole affair. Smith and Popp are seamless in their athleticism, just as they're defiantly absurd in defense of their feeling for one another.
The “gender politics and sexual taboos of the original text,” Chambers wrote in the program notes, “are no longer in the forefront of a modern currency of change and are therefore useless.” He's absolutely right about that—but more important, he's drawn a bead on the constancy of human nature, warts and all. This Miss Julie is a visceral account of our folly, and Chambers insists we sit up and take notice. Very good show.
Meanwhile, some inlaid crucifixes are about all that's left of the venue's days as a church. The Tenth Avenue Theatre has been spiffed up considerably, with new restrooms and paint and an apparent commitment to the performing arts. The space's future was touch and go for a while—let's cross our fingers that some horny contractor doesn't sprout a wild hair in the neighborhood anytime soon. This review is based on the opening-night performance of March 29. Miss Julie runs through April 27 at the Tenth Avenue Theatre, 930 10th Ave., Downtown. $15-$25. 619-544-1484 or www.sledgehammer.org.