Off-Off-Broadway theater companies are known for taking liberties with the classics. Sometimes, these "liberties" may be the product of financial limitations rather than the director's imagination: the use, for instance, of an electric stove in an 1889 play. We're willing to overlook such an incongruity because it may have been the prop that the producer could most easily and affordably obtain.
Another possibility when an OOB production takes liberties with a classic is that it may be unclear whether the "liberties" result from the director's reinterpreting the work or just accepting a low standard from her actors. This is the case with the Creative Artists Laboratory production of Strindberg's Miss Julie. What the audience could accept early on as a revisionist take on the title role revealed itself by play's end as merely poor acting. For the last half hour, in fact, Carlie McCarthy's high-pitched, singsongy voice (and lisp) had the effect of fingernails on a chalkboard. It was not only unpleasant to listen to, but also distracting at a time that listeners should be riveted to the dialogue.
By all accounts, Miss Julie is neurotic. But the neuroticism of McCarthy's Julie seemed a byproduct of the actor's inability to play "serious," not a deliberately conceived personality trait. McCarthy's acting belonged in a sitcom. This was OK in the beginning-she approached Miss Julie's seduction of her footman with playfulness instead of arrogance-but it was woefully inadequate for the dramatics of the second act. McCarthy never acted drunk when she was supposed to be, and she conjured no anger or revulsion when reacting to the footman's slaughter of her pet.
Between her voice, her performance, and her physical appearance, McCarthy evinced neither the haughtiness nor refinement that a count's daughter would possess. She was not at all as other characters described her: always with "her nose in the air" and "so standoffish with men." Those qualities of Julie's are essential in making this sexually charged class conflict powerful, so they can stand in contrast to the footman's earthiness.
Which brings up the other fault in the casting: McCarthy was easily outacted by Lance Phillips as Jean, the caddish footman. In a play that's basically a mano-a-mano (and other body parts), the dueling characters must be equally well-portrayed. Phillips had an impressively virile presence, and his performance had the range that McCarthy's lacked. Yet his Jean was too cultured for someone of a lower class. Whereas Jean as written aspires to use his tryst with Julie to attain a lifestyle that would otherwise be off-limits to him, Jean as played here behaved as though he was already familiar with that lifestyle. Was this part of director Tanya Klein's reinterpretation-that Jean is the sophisticated one, Julie the rube? If so, Klein needed sturdier performances to effect her vision.
Phillips also had an advantage over McCarthy in costumes (uncredited, as were the sets and lighting). His outfits suited the period and character; her sweater did not flatter her and, for historical and fashion accuracy, should have been a blouse. (Also featuring Lisa Ann Nelson.)
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Copyright 2000 Adrienne Onofri