Deceptively Simple, Miss Julie, Little Doggy-gate

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Last year, when I was seriously contemplating going on the frightening adventure of having a personal blog, I was looking around at other people’s blogs to get a sense of what folks were writing about and came across Deceptively Simple, an arts and culture blog with a focus on classical music, by Time Out Chicago classical music editor, Marc Geelhoed.  I was thrilled to discover it – finally a personal blog that didn’t contain annoying rants about potholes and long lines at Dominick’s, or gushy breathlessness about the latest handbag purchase; finally an arts and culture blog that didn’t sound like an extended MFA lecture or a pretentious cocktail party conversation.  Deceptively Simple was smart, informed, appealingly and elegantly written, passionate- qualities that I wanted my own blog to possess.  Marc and his blog were an inspiration and guide for my own online aspirations (and I was very excited to get this shoutout during the launch week of From the Ledge).  Marc wrote last Friday that he was leaving Time Out Chicago and moving to a job with the Chicago Symphony’s Resound record label, and noted that Deceptively Simple would need to take a different tone and focus, given his new role.  My initial perturbation with the impending change at one of my online must-reads of the day vanished with his latest blog entry (on a topic I actually feel very passionate about, arts education). Change is good and Deceptively Simple will continue to be a terrific model for us bloggers who want to write about arts and culture with clear points of view and insights and a goal to win others over to the possibilities and power of the arts. Thanks Marc!

It’s another 4 degree F weekend in Chicago, but negative wind chill won’t make me miss a Sean Graney production.  I have always been a fan of this unconventional, highly-creative, always surprising Chicago director but I was especially blown away by his recent productions of The Elephant Man at Steppenwolf and What the Butler Saw at the Court Theatre.  I was very curious and excited to see what he would do with August Strindberg’s Miss Julie, which is notable in the history of drama for being a forerunner of Naturalism in the theater, and which has also been equally acclaimed for its highly-charged portrayal of social class warfare and sexual politics as well as vilified for its very obvious misogynism.  Well, Graney does not disappoint in the theatrical wow department.  His Miss Julie is staged in a “promenade style”, which means the audience walks around a huge wooden box containing the sets in the middle of the cavernous Chopin Theatre basement to view the actors playing the scenes up close.  It’s a technique Graney has used in the past with Sarah Kane’s 4.48 Psychosis (where the actors were on raised platforms) and Irene Maria Fornes’ Mud (where the actors were inside a life size aquarium), which, although it blurs the divisions between actor and spectator, I have always found very effective, since if done well, it really gets the audience caught up in the emotional moment.  In Miss Julie, the set is stunningly conceived and executed, with the box being opened up and unlocked to reveal different settings (the estate kitchen, a meat locker, even a garbage heap) in which the scenes are played out.  I also loved the staging of some of the monologues, and the famous preface Strindberg wrote to the play regarding its naturalistic approach, as edgy pop songs performed and lit cabaret style (the sexy, hip original music was composed by Kevin O’Donnell).  However, I was perplexed by some of the artistic decisions he made, which really bordered on the bizarre and gimmicky, such as the intermittent use of a fog machine for no apparent reason, the inclusion of walkie talkies, umbrellas, and roller skates in the dramatic confrontation between Jean and Miss Julie after they have had sex, Kristen the cook suddenly falling asleep in the middle of the first scene, and Miss Julie’s “anointing” with fake blood near the end of the play.  I think the biggest problem I had with this production though was the fact that I never really saw the class conflict in the performances of Stacy Stoltz as Miss Julie and Gregory Hardigan as her father’s valet, Jean.  I think the power of Miss Julie is the gradual transition from class and social status power plays to sexual power play, and an inversion of the dominant-submissive roles between the two main characters.  I am not sure if it’s the performances since both Stoltz and Hardigan, whom I have admired in previous Hypocrites productions, deliver solid work.  I think it’s an inherent problem in the casting- Hardigan does not seem to have that coarseness, that attractive dangerousness, that repellent but magnetic quality that Jean demands; he comes off as a really nice, artsy boy next door, more Hugh Grant than Lady Chatterly’s Lover.  As the third character in the play, Kristin, Samantha Gleisten gives an emotionally truthful performance.  Despite my overall ambivalence at this production, I still recommend Graney’s Miss Julie to those looking for a memorable, one of a kind experience at the theater.  By the way, walkaround/audience interactive productions are becoming quite the rage in London, and give the New York Times’ Charles Isherwood something to scoff at.

There’s been quite a cacophony regarding the missing nude scene at About Face’s The Little Dog Laughed (which various Chicago theatre bloggers have dubbed Nudiegate or Little Doggy-gate).  I blogged about my personal views on the “controversy” here.  Time Out Chicago has posted Eric Rosen’s side of the story on the TOC website- it has been an exhausting ride; hopefully, this puts the matter to rest once and for all.

There’s still time to experience Sean Graney’s Miss Julie.  It runs at the Chopin Theatre, 1543 W. Division, until March 3.  Here Time Out’s Christopher Piatt raves about the production; here the Chicago Tribune’s Chris Jones offers a contrary viewpoint.

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