Review: ‘Free For All: A New ‘Miss Julie’ for a New World,’ a world premiere at Cutting Ball (*****)

by Charles Kruger

Phil Wong (right) plays John, a cook from San Francisco’s Chinatown working in a Nob Hill mansion inhabited by Stacy Ross as Julie (back middle), as mysterious puppeteers Myaka P Cochrane (back left) and Charlie Gray (back right) look on in the world premiere of “Free For All: A New ‘Miss Julie’ for a New World” at Cutting Ball Theater. Photo Credit: Ben Krantz.
Reviewed by a voting member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle.

Playwright Megan Cohen and co-developer/director Ariel Craft have reconsidered a naturalistic classic (Strindberg’s “Miss Julie”) with spectacular results.

Strindberg’s “Miss Julie,” is recognized as a masterpiece, and often considered, along with Ibsen’s “Hedda Gabler,” to be one of the most important plays of the late 19th century, a time when writers were taking on many contemporary social issues in realistic ways. Strindberg went on to abandon naturalism in favor of a more expressionistic aesthetic, famously utilizing dreams and fantasy, but “Miss Julie” is as realistic and earthy as a coal shuttle.

The play is a character study of an imperious, wealthy young woman who uses her power to seduce a servant. She is both vulnerable and cruel. She is a woman of strong passion, whose desires are constrained by her social position, and she rebels. Her insistence upon breaking out and demanding her right to her feelings destroys her. The play presents a problem for modern interpretations because it is unclear to what extent Miss Julie is a victim or a monster. Is she a destructive rebel, refusing to follow appropriate social standards or a passionate woman who is destroyed when she legitimately attempts to claim control of her destiny?

In “Free For All,” the story is moved to the future rather than the past, and, in these different circumstances, Miss Julie’s fate and the implications of her actions are completely transformed. Instead of the obvious constraints of 19th century Europe, the situation in a time of climate apocalypse is, precisely, a “Free For All.”

Miss Julie is still an imperious aristocrat. Now, she is the wealthy daughter of a San Francisco millionaire, raised and coddled in a mansion on Nob Hill, and a true one-percenter, a monster of privilege and self-indulgence, unconstrained. Climate change has turned San Francisco into a land of snow and ice, and Miss Julie enjoys skiing the slopes. She is literally “on top.” And yet, she is controlled by two mysterious puppeteers who share the stage, providing her skis and allowing her to lean and glide convincingly. Is she, in fact, a truly free “Miss Julie,” or is she, in some way, as controlled as her 19th-century counterpart?

As with the original play, the occasion is a huge party. In this case, it is, literally, an end of the world party. The powers have proclaimed that this very night is the last snow, and by morning it will all be melting and San Francisco will be flooded. Only the wealthiest are likely to survive. After the party at Miss Julie’s Nob Hill mansion, helicopters will arrive to rescue the partiers, but the servants will be left to their own devices.

As Miss Julie gleefully skis down Nob Hill, presumably for the last time, she runs headlong into her household servant, John, shopping for the party, on foot, effectively creating a collision between Strindberg’s original play and the modern version.

The encounter plays out between heiress Julie and servant John, but this is not Strindberg’s dark and dismal version. In the 21st century, Julie is freed from her constraints but there is nothing wonderful about that. She (and her class as represented by the party-goers) are free to be destructive in their wealth (the climate change deniers are in the ascendancy here) and John is not a cowed servant, his life determined by class structure, but an informed rebel with plans for upward mobility. With the constraints of class apparently vanquished, the two of them are gleefully selfish, inhabiting a mad-cap Ayn Rand fantasy world. Except for those mysterious puppeteers.

The raw selfishness of Julie and the appalled witness of John are played out here with such unaffected zest and glee that the results are hilarious. In presenting these characters as unfettered archetypes in a world where all of the old structures have fallen, playwright Megan Cohen and director Ariel Craft have freed their actors to go so far over the top that the astounded laughter never stops.

Stacy Ross, an excellent dramatic actress with a proven capacity for histrionics turns her dramatic skills to comedy in a phenomenal performance. She careens about the stage like a wrecking ball, deconstructing Miss Julie from tragic drama queen to gut-busting farce heroine, never missing a trick. She is matched point for point by Phil Wong, playing her servant John, as they push each other to absurdities beyond absurdities.

As the puppeteers, Miyaka P. Cochrane and Charlie Gray remain appropriately in the background, working magic with their puppets (including some marvelous pigeons) and occasionally mugging and winking at the audience to goose the laughter along.

To summarize: this production is fantastically joyful, courageously going where surely no “Miss Julie” has gone before. The more you know of the historical context of Strindberg’s play, the funnier it is likely to be, but scholarly sophistication is by no means required to enjoy this amazing production.

The design set by Jacqueline Wren Scott, costumes by Racheal Heiman, lighting by Cassie Barnes, sound by James Ard, and properties by Adeline Smith complement the overall vision.

This one’s a winner!

“Free For All” plays at the Cutting Ball Theater through October 20, 2019. For further information, click here.

Rating: ***** (For an explanation of TheatreStorm’s rating scale, click here.)

“Free For All: A New ‘Miss Julie’ For A New World” by Megan Cohen, developed with and directed by Ariel Craft. Scenic Designer: Jacqueline Wren Scott. Costume Designer: Racheal Heiman. Lighting Designer: Cassie Barnes. Properties Designer: James Ard.

Cast: Julie: Stacy Ross. John: Phil Wong. Puppeteers: Miyaka P. Cochrane and Charlie Gray.


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