‘Miss Julie’ still challenges the chains of convention

If Strindberg's classic, at The Verona Studio in Salem, is too intense for the holidays, head to Gallery Theater for "It's a Wonderful Life"

The Verona Studio in Salem will do some heavy lifting in the Willamette Valley’s theater scene this month. The company, based in the Reed Opera House Mall, is mounting a production of August Strindberg’s Miss Julie, where the Darwinian theory of “survival of the fittest” is put to the test with a romantic encounter that crosses class lines.

The show opens a three-weekend run on Nov. 29. While the show was in rehearsal last week, director Gregory Jolivette exchanged a few emails with me. That interview is below, but first, a bit about the play, for the uninitiated.

Johan August Strindberg was a prolific Swedish writer (in addition to the naturalistic theater for which he is famous, he was also a novelist, essayist, and poet) whose career spanned about four decades — mostly during the latter half of the 19th century. He wrote more than 60 plays, and his 1888 drama Miss Julie is widely considered his masterpiece. It’s performed frequently and has been adapted to film many times — most famously in 1951 by the Swedish director Alf Sjöberg and most recently in 2014 by Liv Ullmann. I haven’t seen that one, which stars Jessica Chastain and Colin Farrell, but I have seen Sjöberg’s version, which is available on home video through the Criterion Collection and is well worth your time.

Belladina Starr and Seth Allen tackle the bucket-list roles of Julie and Jean in “Miss Julie,” Strindberg’s searing classic about class, gender, and money. Photo courtesy: Roman Martinez of Roman Films for The Verona Studio

Miss Julie features a cast of three. The title character (played in Verona’s production by Belladina Starr), the daughter of a Swedish nobleman, is drawn to Jean, her father’s valet (played by Seth Allen). Christine (Penelope Bays) is a cook for the estate who finds herself in the thick of it. It’s such a challenging, complex work, so rich in its themes and characters, that I wanted to know something about the person who decided to tackle it for The Verona Studio.

Tell us about your background and involvement in theater.

Gregory Jolivette: I stumbled into the theater during my freshman year of high school and have since been doing it as a hobby. I’ve been involved in over 40 productions, mostly as an actor in both community and professional theater companies. Although I grew up in Northern California, Oregon has been a significant part of my theater journey because of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Seeing plays there as a high school student is what really got me hooked on theater arts. Those formative experiences at OSF also explain my interest in the classics. My interest in directing was piqued around the time I moved to Salem in 2013. I started out by assistant-directing a couple of shows at the Pentacle Theatre, and, in 2017, had my directorial debut with The Verona Studio’s well-received production of ‘Night, Mother.

Do you remember a particular play and/or performance you saw at OSF that showed you what theater can do?

My first trip to OSF was in 1984. I saw six plays in a week. Looking back, I think it was the sense of immersion one gets from seeing six plays in week; the variety of sets and costumes, and seeing theater spaces transformed from one era to another in a matter of hours that made the biggest impression. That’s theater magic! My two favorite shows that year were Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, and The Taming of the Shrew.

Could you describe your first encounter with Miss Julie?

I happened upon Miss Julie at the library while looking for a scene to perform in a college acting class. I was immediately drawn to it. It just resonated with me. Like Jean, I wanted to better my station in life. Also, I’d been in a relationship with a free-spirited young woman from a more privileged background, so I understood on a personal level some of the relationship dynamics between Jean and Julie.

How many of the film versions have you seen?

Gregory Jolivette, director of The Verona Studio’s “Miss Julie,” says he was immediately drawn to the play when he first encountered it in college.

I’ve seen three film versions of Miss Julie, including the award-winning 1951 version produced in Sweden. My favorite is the 1987 version starring Janet McTeer and Patrick Malahide.

This is a 19th-century play about social class and gender relations in Europe, performed in 21st-century America. Does it still work?

Certainly, on one level, the play deals with class and gender. It still works, because there will always be people who challenge and want to break out of the constraints placed on their lives, whether the chains be economic or social conventions. It has become increasingly difficult for Americans to move from one economic class to another in this proverbial land of opportunity, and gender identity is very much a part of our current affairs. Just this morning, I witnessed a group of young people with signs at the state Capitol advocating the idea of gender as a spectrum. On another level, however, the play deals with facing the consequences of our actions, a theme that resonates with most adults.

Can you tell us anything about this particular translation (by Michael Meyer)?

I find this translation to be the easiest to understand for a modern audience. It is the version used by the Royal Shakespeare Company in its 1971 production of Miss Julie featuring Helen Mirren in the title role. Coincidentally, it is also the same script used in my favorite film version of Strindberg’s play.

The play deals with a myriad of issues — class tensions and gender relations among the two big ones — but it seems to me a director and acting company approaching this material have the ability to perhaps emphasize one over the other. Does one of these issues loom larger in your mind, or do you see them on equal footing?

Miss Julie is an extremely well-written play, so my goal has been to stay true to the script, to tell the story as clearly as possible. That said, we have made some adjustments to appeal to modern audiences, who are likely more accustomed to intimate scenes than audiences of Strindberg’s day.

Your journey with Miss Julie started in college, and now you’re directing it and heading into opening night. Any new impressions, anything you’ve learned, now that you’ve lived with it for a while?

Honestly, as a younger man, I wasn’t as aware of misogyny. The levels in Miss Julie have been a discovery.

Miss Julie is a short play, but it’s demanding on the actors, particularly those cast as Julie and Jean. How has that shaped your direction? What have rehearsals been like?

That’s right. Julie and Jean are “bucket-list” roles for actors who know and appreciate the classics. They are demanding roles. Fortunately, Belladina Starr (Julie) and Seth Allen (Jean) are really fine actors, and they have great chemistry together on stage. This means we were able to hit the boards running from very early on in the rehearsal process with more time to explore the script and different character choices. I couldn’t have asked for a better cast.

Miss Julie opens Nov. 29 and runs through Dec. 15, with shows at 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, and 2 p.m. Dec. 8 and 15. Tickets are $20; to purchase them, go here.

LOOKING FOR SOMETHING LIGHTER THAN STRINDBERG? Your best bet is McMinnville, where Gallery Theater’s final production of its 50th year, the audience favorite It’s a Wonderful Life, opens Friday for a three-week run ending Dec. 15. Gallery regular Debbie Harmon Ferry, who played George Bailey’s wife nearly two decades ago, directs, and Grant Stephens plays Bailey. Two interesting cast notes: John Eshleman, who played Bailey back in 2000, is the villain (Mr. Potter) and Meredith Symons returns to the role she played earlier, as Bailey’s mother. There’s plenty more info at Gallery’s website, where you can also buy tickets.

FANS OF LIVE MUSIC, MAKE A NOTE: The MJ New Quartet, a virtuoso quartet that revisits the sophisticated soundscape of the Modern Jazz Quartet, will perform Wednesday, Nov. 28, at Linfield College. You can hear their blend of classical and jazz at the Richard and Lucille Ice Auditorium in Melrose Hall at 7 p.m. Led by jazz pianist Darrell Grant, the group offers thoughtful interpretations and explorations of MJQ classics such as Django, Skating in Central Park and Odds Against Tomorrow, as well as lesser-known pieces.

They will also perform new works. Audiences are likely to hear Bach smoothly segue into Antonio Carlos Jobim, an impressionistic version of a jazz standard, a reimagined Chopin étude or a four-part improvisation on a Beethoven sonata theme.

Besides Grant, the quartet includes bassist/composer Marcus Shelby, vibraphonist Mike Horsfall and drummer Carlton Jackson.

The performance is sponsored by Linfield Lively Arts and Friends of Chamber Music. The concert is $10 for general admission and free for K-12 and Linfield College students. For more information, call 503-883-2275 or go here.

ON DECK: Keep an eye on this space in the coming weeks. There’s a lot going on in Yamhill County, and Oregon ArtsWatch is on it: The Columbia FiberArts Guild, Eunice Odio’s The Fire’s Journey, and Octavio Solis, whose play Mother Road debuts in 2019 at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

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