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For its debut production at its new space in the Brooklyn Public Library’s Pacific Street Branch, the Ritual Theatre Company has chosen to mount August Strindberg’s "Miss Julie."

The choice is excellent, given the nature of the company and the talents of its actors.

Founded in Chicago in 1996 by Robert Kropf, the Ritual Theatre Company was reincarnated in Brooklyn after Kropf, a Park Slope resident, met fellow-Sloper Winona Sorensen last May at the Wellfleet Harbor Actor’s Theatre. Their Brooklyn location was made possible by a partnership with the Brooklyn Public Library: in exchange for after-school theater classes for young adults, the library provides the company with rehearsal and performance space at its Pacific Street Branch.

Ritual Theater Company describes itself as "an actor-driven collaborative ensemble dedicated to the celebration of great texts." Which makes Strindberg’s classic drama about a passionate countess, and her doomed attraction to her father’s valet, an obvious choice for launching RTC’s residence in Brooklyn.

In 1892, when "Miss Julie" was first produced, it caused quite a stir. The play, with its themes of gender and class conflict, had, in fact, already been banned in Denmark when it was finally accepted by the avant-garde little theater of Berlin, Die Freie Buhne.

"Miss Julie" was notable (or notorious) for what was then considered its lewd material, and it also commanded attention for technical reasons. Strindberg was a strong advocate of naturalistic drama based on social Darwinism and Friedrich Nietzsche’s "will-to-power" philosophy. His characters are motivated by psychological needs, often repressed, and their actions flow naturally from the psychological drama. Thus Strindberg advocated the abolition of intermissions and act division, and "Miss Julie" runs for over an hour of unremitting conflict.

Today, however, "Miss Julie" seems neither technically nor thematically radical, and the play is more often cited as an influence on playwrights such as Eugene O’Neill and Tennessee Williams than actually performed. Yet Strindberg’s poetic language and personal insights remain compelling even when his psychological theories seem dated.

True to Strindberg’s script, RTC has set "Miss Julie" in the count’s kitchen on Midsummer Night’s Eve, although they have paid scant attention to the playwright’s detailed scenic design. The actors, who have also worked on the set, claim to have found all the scenic elements, down to an ancient gas stove, on the streets of Park Slope, and the turn-of-the-century clothing in thrift shops.

The actors dutifully follow Strindberg’s most tortuous dialogue - his long monologues, his ornate prose - and do a magnificent job at that.

Valerie Stanford, a statuesque blonde beauty, arouses both pity and scorn as the man-hating servant-seducing "Miss Julie." She is passionate, haughty, wonton and, in the end, quite vulnerable.

Kropf as Jean, the valet, and Sorensen as Kristen, the cook whom he intends to marry some day, are priggish and self-righteous. They know their place, even if their "betters" don’t. The difference is that Kristen, although willing to enjoy stolen wine and take small kick-backs, is genuinely respectful of the aristocracy and disappointed in their fall from grace, while Jean is happy to learn his "betters" are at bottom no better than anyone else.

"Miss Julie" is not only a battle between men and women, and the aristocracy and their servants; it is also a battle of wits. Is it Julie who seduces Jean or the opposite? Whatever has inspired the brutish Jean to such flights of poetry? Does anyone win in the end, or have they all lost something: self-respect, innocence, a sense of order in their world? The actors bring these conflicts vividly, sometimes painfully, to life.

At a time when the division between classes seems to have become fuzzy, when football stars, politicians and movie stars are equally admired and reviled, when British royalty cavorts like hormone-driven adolescents, when women are lawyers and husbands become stay-at-home dads, it’s easy to see "Miss Julie" as a relic of the past.

Yet it’s instructive to note that at 30, Roe v. Wade seems in grave danger, that women often do not get equal pay for equal work, that most often the poor do indeed stay poor and the gap between the rich and the poor is steadily growing in 21st century America.

"Miss Julie" is a welcome reminder of how far society has come since the late 19th century, and how far we have yet to go. The Ritual Theatre Company should be commended for letting us forget neither the play nor the issues it brings to light.


Ring of truth

In 1937, when Clifford Odets’ "Golden Boy" was first produced by The Group Theater, the American people were in the midst of the Great Depression and on the brink of entering World War II. The parallels with present-day America are unmistakable.

That may be one reason The Impact Theatre chose to stage this play. Or they may have been drawn by Odets’ powerful language and unforgettable characters. Either way, director Ron Parrella has staged a hit.

"Golden Boy" reflects Odets’ personal battle with the temptations of profit and the ideals of social justice and art. (Odets ended up in Hollywood.)

Joe Bonaparte (Mikal Saint George) is an Italian-American youth whose father (Bob Melia) is grooming him to become a violinist. But Joe, eager to make his mark in the world and escape the poverty in which his family lives, instead turns to manager Tom Moody (Tim Lewis), who promises to make him into a champion prize fighter. While Joe keeps winning more and more fights, he also wins the heart of Moody’s mistress, Lorna Moon (Joan Ryan). But his father never gives up his dream.

Saint George is tender and tough in the title role. He makes up for his lack of girth with his hard-nosed defiance. And Parrella has wisely kept him covered up so no one notices too much that he doesn’t look like he could K.O. a 10-year-old.

Ryan has blond hair and innocent blue eyes. But she definitely is not the girl-next-door. She’s a smart-alecky but sensitive broad who delivers lines like "When I came out of the cocoon I was a butterfly. And butterflies don’t work," but also complains that unless Moody divorces his wife to marry her, she will continue to feel like the "Tramp from Newark."

Lewis, who as head of The Impact Theatre appears on stage infrequently, proves to be a dynamo on stage. His textured performance creates a Moody who can threaten, cajole, cry and cringe.

Odets has populated his play with choice parts for gifted character actors - Carp (Michael Maher) the armchair philosopher and radical; Roxy Gottlieb (Ed Ferruzza) the sleazy cigar-smoking promoter; and Siggie (Tom Clemons), Joe’s whining brother-in-law. And the cast in the Impact Theatre production acquits itself admirably in the supporting roles.

This is a spare production - in fact, a bit too spare. One would have liked to see more than a few chairs and a desk as scenery. True, The Impact Theatre does have limited space, but surely a few photos of champion boxers could have been put on the walls and perhaps a trophy or two adorned the shelves in the office of a manager of prize fighters?

Nevertheless Odets’ evocative language creates its own landscape with lines like "A woman’s place is in the hay, not in the office" and "I’ll make Niagara Falls turn around and go back to Canada."

"Golden Boy" has had an interesting history. It ran for 250 performances when it was staged by The Group Theatre under the direction of Harold Clurman, with Luther Adler as Joe Bonaparte, Morris Carnovsky as his father and Frances Farmer as Lorna. It not only revived the company financially, it also turned out to be the Group’s biggest moneymaker.

In 1939, "Golden Boy" was turned into a film directed by Rouben Mamoulian with a stellar cast that included Barbara Stanwyck (Lorna Moon), Adolphe Menjou (Tom Moody), Lee J. Cobb (Joe’s father) and the unknown 21-year-old William Holden in the role of Joe Bonaparte.

The play was revived in 1952 and again in 1975. And in 1964, "Golden Boy" was transformed by Odets and William Gibson into a musical with lyrics by Lee Adams and music by Charles Strouse, and Sammy Davis Jr. in the lead role.

With all the talent on stage in this production, one can only hope "Golden Boy" will continue its series of successes for The Impact Theatre.

 

The Ritual Theatre Company’s production of "Miss Julie" plays through Feb. 1, Wednesdays through Saturdays at 8 pm, at the Brooklyn Public Library’s Pacific Street Branch, 25 Fourth Ave. on the corner of Pacific Street in Boerum Hill. Suggested donation $15. For reservations, call (212) 946-5613 or e-mail ritualtheatre@yahoo.com. For more information, visit www.ritualtheatre.org.

"Golden Boy" plays through Feb. 2, Thursday through Saturday at 8 pm and Sunday at 3 pm at The Impact Theatre, 190 Underhill Ave. between Sterling Place and St. Johns Place in Prospect Heights. Tickets are $15. For reservations, call (718) 390-7163.

Updated 4:00 pm, November 10, 2010
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