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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Great 'Julie' Has Room for Growth

"Miss Julie" at the Vakhtangov Theater, I think, is a major production that didn't quite happen - or, more to the point - hasn't happened yet.

I sense in this interpretation of August Strindberg's great play a large potential for growth. This is one of the strengths of Russian theater, that shows come up not for six weeks, but for the long run. They develop and acquire depth over time. The best may run for years, even decades. "Miss Julie" could be running 10 years from now.

The cast is excellent. Even in an intimate three-actor piece as this, I seldom see such a strong acting unit. There exists among the performers the equality of talent and disparity of personality that the so-called independent producers' shows would like, but seldom have been able, to achieve.

The trio of Yulia Rutberg, Vladimir Simonov and Maria Aronova enjoy a deep-running rapport that I suspect could only be achieved at a repertory theater like the Vakhtangov.

The set by Yevgeny Byurchiyev, with aid from consultant Pavel Kaplevich, resolves well the problem of creating a small space for a large stage. An "open" wall - bare checkerboard girders with no coverings - marks off at the front of the stage the kitchen where the action takes place, while also allowing us to gaze into a vast open territory behind it, the garden into which Miss Julie will go for the last time after the tragedy has been played out.

Vladimir Amelin's lighting is superb. In the kitchen where the aristocrat Julie will haughtily steal the servant Jean from the cook Kristin, the illumination tends to be dark and localized. A spot may catch only one actor, occasionally just a portion of a body. It reflects a heavy earthiness that ties in with the set's massive wooden furniture and evokes the atmosphere of seduction, betrayal and cruelty.

At moments when the tension is suspended, the distant "garden" suddenly may be washed in pale violets, greens or blues that encourage in us a contemplative response.

Strindberg wrote a slashing expos? of the wars between the sexes and the classes. With near scientific precision he laid bare the devastating impact that inequitable shares of power have on human relations. Although it may appear so on the surface, this is no realistic piece about sexual intrigue leading to suicide. It is a schematic work that develops too quickly to be real. It is the artifice, the author's concessions to the demands of stage time and space - as well as the author's withering insight - that make this such a stunning drama.

Herein lies my chief complaint about Vladimir Ivanov's direction - incoherent pacing. Worst is Ivanov's odd decision to cut this one-act play in halves with an intermission. So much depends on the unrelenting build-up of tension that the notion of halting things and starting all over again is wrongheaded at best.

There are some excellent suspended pauses when the actors freeze for what appears an eternity. In these drawn-out frames we initially perceive intellectually the significance of the preceding dialogue - usually evidence of the basic incompatibility of thesexes - and finish by sensing it physically, as though it were a vibration in our body.

And yet, at least at this early date, this production suffers from an uneven tempo. Momentum too often is lost and must be regained, meanwhile the driving force of the performance is undermined.

Rutberg's Miss Julie is probably a shade softer and more defenseless than Strindberg intended - which is anything but criticism. It is her unexpected fullness, her fragile, high-strung emotionality mixed with the hatred of men that her mother instilled in her that is this show's biggest revelation.

Rutberg appears as an Ophelia look-alike in flowing white clothes with a flower wreath on her head. She is light and self-centered, though not arrogant. When she convinces Kristin's fianc? Jean to go dance with her, it may reflect an effort to prove her superiority over the servants or it may be an unconsidered rudeness.

The ambiguity is what gives the situation depth.

Rutberg's voice suits her role perfectly. Sensuous and a bit gravelly, it drops suddenly into thick, lower registers in moments of anger or surprise, as though another personality has begun to speak from within. We are never sure who controls Julie's psyche, the woman desiring love or the overlord demanding obeisance. The actress invariably plays her heroine on the off-beat, giving us soft when we expect hard, and wrath when we expect flexibility.

Jean, as played by Simonov, is not quite a rogue. He's simple, quietly but unthinkingly ambitious and apparently ready for any adventure. Only later do we see how subservient he can be, but that will be an unforeseen discovery. He has no qualms about slipping from Kristin's embrace into bed with Julie and then assuring Kristin that nothing of importance has happened. Nor does he fear urging Julie to kill herself as the only way out after their plans to flee together have collapsed.

Although Simonov occasionally imitates emotion with his voice, overall, his is a fine performance. Until cowed by the authority of the unseen man of the house, Julie's father the count, Jean is a marauding male animal.

Aronova's Kristin is everything Julie and Jean are not.

Stable, solid and wise, she knows her place in relation to men and to masters. She has no thoughts of escaping her lot and is only irritated or confused by those who do.

"Miss Julie" is one of those few shows I would like to see again. It was impressive the first time around and I suspect it will only get better.

"Miss Julie" (Fryoken Zhyuli) plays Feb. 16 and 26 at 7 p.m. at the Vakhtangov Theater, 26 Ulitsa Arbat. Tel. 241-1651. Running time: two hours, 20 minutes.