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Pericles and The Miss Julie Dream Project: Sort-of Shakespeare, and Sort-of Strindberg 

Thursday, Sep 12 2013
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There are dreams described within August Strindberg's 1888 play, Miss Julie — such as the moneyed title character being stranded on a pillar, and the object of her scandalous lust, a footman named Jean, stuck on the ground while yearning to climb trees.

But the play itself embodies the kind of slice-of-life naturalism embraced by so many of our TV dramas. The eponymous Miss Julie is the bored daughter of an estate owner. One day, with little better to do, Julie toys around in the servants' quarters during one of their parties. There she meets Jean, who is engaged to be married to another servant. Miss Julie and Jean conceal their meeting, which violates the time's rigid class structure, by stealing away. Their rapport in hiding consists of various sadomasochistic power games, and in their clandestine quarters they have shame-fueled sex — after which Jean urges Miss Julie to kill herself for her own good. Gentleman that he is, he courteously provides a razor.

Nine scribes from the group Fell Swoop Playwrights (Meghan Brown, Samm Hill, J. Holtham, Abbe Levine, Michelle Meyers, Tira Palmquist, Emily Brauer Rogers, Brenda Varda and Kyle T. Wilson) cobbled together their impressions of Miss Julie — addressing in an entirely new play the questions of how the classic work struck them and how it resonates today. Their collaborative effort, The Miss Julie Dream Project, initially conceived by Wilson, was first presented in this summer's Hollywood Fringe festival and has since been revised and honed for a short run at Son of Semele. It plays through this weekend.

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The setting is a theater company's production of Miss Julie, in which the newly hired and nervous actress, Mina (Lynn Adrianna), finds herself barely understanding the role. Meanwhile a tyrannical director (Edward Alvarado, playing to cliché as the director, and also terrific in other roles in this production) is in a panic because the play is supposed to open within the hour and Mina can't be found — though she stands before him.

Furthermore, Mina can't recall her lines. The production opens with her calling for her first line. Nobody else from the company can hear her, because nobody else can see her. The stage manager has cellphone glued to ear trying to discover where she might be.

This comedic, cruel absurdity is theme-and-variation on Christopher Durang's 1970s one-act, The Actor's Nightmare. But here it comes with a twist: The real Miss Julie (Elan O'Connor) has blown in on a zephyr and salvages the play-within-the-play, at least to some extent.

Seeing that she is Miss Julie rather than merely an actress portraying her, the thespians grapple with the exigencies of turning fiction into reality, or at least into the plausible illusion of reality.

At the same time, actress Mina and real person Miss Julie battle out their own identity crisis so that questions of who is real and who is acting, and what is real and what is illusion, keep bumping up against each other and sparking.

Strindberg's work has been widely criticized by feminists, who find his plays misogynistic. Miss Julie in particular has taken a drubbing — after all, Julie and Jean are equally culpable for their misdeed. Jean is actually engaged to somebody else, and so his betrayal is certainly the larger. Yet he, Julie and the author agree that Miss Julie deserves to be killed for her transgression.

Like many realistic plays, Miss Julie derives from Greek-tragic structure in which actions are motivated by discernible psychological reasons, inexorably linked to social causes. Both Julie and Jean feel trapped in their respective classes and curious about the forbidden other, hence their attraction, their guilt, their lusting to be punished for their forbidden desires. The result is a comforting relationship between cause and effect — the lunacy of the world makes sense, because it derives from something we can explain.

The primary beauty of the Fell Swoop Playwrights' project lies in the way it transforms the play's dodgy sexual politics — and Strindberg's psychological explanations for his characters' destructive behavior — from the logic of cause and effect to the surreal.

In this Miss Julie-in-Wonderland, the reasons things happen aren't necessarily discernible. Actions are arbitrary and only make sense from a subconscious dream state, leaving a lingering, eerie effect. After all, it's not so much the absence of logic but the introduction of an alternative logic that rattles the cages of the determinedly rational.

The production's in-jokes about actor training, puns on lines from Waiting for Godot (among other plays), analysis of Strindberg's misogyny, and the very fact of the playwright's penchant for staging dreams (see: Dream Play), make this a jocular, nutty, thoughtful and sometimes insular event. On the night I attended, the jokes were landing fitfully, leading to an effect more beguiling than funny.

Still, the meditation of what Strindberg could possibly mean to us in the here and now — as well as the meditation on what actually constitutes the here and now — retained its charm.

Katie Chidester's direction was one big reason why. Among the production's other highlights is Fred Kinney's set, a stage with a door behind it but tilted forward at a slight angle, just to make clear that even the play's architectural geometry is off-kilter. Sprouting from the stage floor are single, flowering rose stems that would have made Salvador Dali proud.

Pericles, Prince of Tyre also would seem to be a joint-writing project. History tells us that William Shakespeare probably wrote half the play as one of his later projects, while his associate George Wilkins probably wrote the other half. Others may have been involved, too, but textual analysis is little help here: The existing text of the 1607 romance was assembled largely from actors recalling their lines after the production.

This play, too, is an homage to the irrational, unless you believe that a woman presumed dead after giving birth on a ship can be restored to life after being sealed and pitched overboard in a water-proof coffin. You also have to believe that the orphaned infant would grow up to be such a beauty that her jealous caretaker would hire an assassin to dispatch her. And that, at the moment of the contracted hit, a band of pirates would drop in from the sky to steal the beauty away to a distant brothel. There are events that seem surprising but somehow conform to the logic of a dream, and then there's this — the Jacobean equivalent of a B romance-adventure flick.

It's also an opportunity for gleeful stage pageantry and spectacle, a melodrama unmatched by 90 percent of the offerings currently playing in the city.

Presented by Pasadena's A Noise Within, this is the first production of the troupe's "Lost and Found" season — Pericles winds up in despair having lost his beloved wife and daughter to death and corruption, only to joyously reunite with them decades later. The preview suggests that Julia Rodriguez-Elliott's production has all the hallmarks of being a riveting, visually gorgeous carnival.

Jeanine A. Ringer's set serves up a wooden backdrop consisting of drawers and doors that slip open when silks or props are needed. Angela Balogh Calin's elegant color-coordinated costumes include Elizabethan collars, each resembling the air filter for a '68 Buick; black bowler hats; and white silks, which the ensemble dons for tautly choreographed "dumb shows" that help explain the plot. The uncredited sound design punctuates the fantasia with drums and orchestral riffs, lending the production its cinematic flair. The pirates haul young Pericles' (Jason Dechert) netting-ensconced daughter, Marina (Jules Wilcox), into the sky. There's a jousting scene with actors and puppet horses and Ken Merckx's fight choreography that is the theater's answer to a Mel Gibson extravaganza.

A week before opening, the performances were on target, starting with Deborah Strang's narrator, Gower. With Strang's lucid expiations in iambic tetrameter, there's no way you can lose a single plot thread.

Regal Thomas Tofel portrays child-molesting King Antiochus, whose wrath against Pericles after the youth reveals the perv's secret sends young Pericles out of town on his picaresque adventures. In a pleasing twist of double casting, Tofel returns as the elder Pericles, as honorable a sire as Antiochus is corrupt.

If The Miss Julie Dream Project urges us to look inward to comprehend lunacy, Pericles does quite the opposite, trafficking in the art of romantic diversion. Still, both wrestle with the world's perversity through the logic of dreams, and it's those images from each production that linger long after the lights go down.

PERICLES, PRINCE OF TYRE | By William Shakespeare and possibly George Wilkins | A Noise Within, 3352 E. Foothill Blvd., Pasadena | in repertory, call for schedule; through Nov. 24 | (626) 356-3100 | anoisewithin.org

THE MISS JULIE DREAM PROJECT | By Meghan Brown, Samm Hill, J. Holtham, Abbe Levine, Michelle Meyers, Tira Palmquist, Emily Brauer Rogers, Brenda Varda, initiated and conceived by Kyle T. Wilson | Fell Swoop Playwrights and Son of Semele, 3301 Beverly Blvd., L.A. | Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; through Sept. 15 | (213) 351-3507 | sonofsemele.org

Reach the writer at smorris@laweekly.com

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