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Staged By Bergman : The Truth Of 'Miss Julie' Goes Beyond Words

September 24, 1987|DAN SULLIVAN | Times Theater Critic

Since most of us don't know Swedish, we can't react to the lines in Ingmar Bergman's Royal Dramatic Theatre of Sweden production of "Miss Julie" at the James A. Doolittle Theatre. But when was the truth about any human situation ever confined to what was being said?

Yes, the reader should review Strindberg's play, if only to see what Bergman has done with it. (Not to it. Bergman is faithful to Strindberg's setting and his realistic tone. The game, at his age, is to quarrel with the playwright within the terms of the play.)

But the viewer doesn't need a jot-and-tittle mastery of Strindberg's text. It might even get in the way. For one reason, because so many of the lines are strategic untruths: the kind of thing people say in order to make themselves seem more interesting, or to cover their tracks.

Watch Peter Stormare solemnly discussing the absent Miss Julie with his intended (Gerthi Kulle) towards the end of the play. Would you ever suspect that he and Miss Julie had just done a guilty thing? Not unless you'd seen it with your own eyes. But since we have--and so has Kulle--we can read him like a book.

Without words, the viewer also becomes more susceptible to the something-in-the-air that's making Miss Julie (Marie Goranzon) behave strangely tonight, even for her. Strindberg set the play on Midsummer Eve, the longest one of the year, not a night for staying in bed, although bed is certainly not out of the picture.

Again, Bergman doesn't need to send a patrol of nude trolls through the woods to establish that license is in the air. We never leave the play's prim, gray, copper-clad kitchen. But watch those windows. Watch how the sunset ripens and ripens, ever closer to the brink.

Yet when it's dark, it's not really dark. It's a terrifically erotic design scheme (Hans Akesson did the lighting, Gunilla Palmstierna-Weiss the set), and it wouldn't bring a blush to a maiden's cheek. An excellent strategy for a play where so much happens under the table.

The acting is very direct, another reason why a study guide to the play isn't needed. The drives on view here are universal, and Bergman's players transmit what's going through their characters as naturally as a copper wire transmits electricity.

At the same time, it's a relatively cool production. "Passion" is fine for a summer night, and it's very tragic when fine ladies cut their throats, but in the morning somebody has still got to start the stove. In real life, as Auden says, something else is always going on.

Where does Bergman stand on the play? He identifies, somewhat to his shame, with Jean, the servant. He and Stormare make some terrible confessions here about the average male cad, in love with his image as a lone wolf, but pathetically eager to throw himself on the nearest female bosom--and ever ready to answer the boss's buzzer.

Ethically, Bergman stands with the women, and the plural is something new in "Miss Julie." It's usually seen as a duet, or duel, between the neurasthenic mistress and the crass lackey. Bergman makes us see it as a trio.

What happens between maidservant and manservant is at least as interesting here as what happens between mistress and manservant. Perhaps more so, in that it suggests an extra chapter to the story. If, after Miss Julie is decently in the ground, Jean really does go off to try the hotel business, he's not going alone.

Kristin (Kulle) has put too much into him to allow that, and she also knows too much. We aren't quite talking about love here, and we aren't quite talking about blackmail, but this is not a woman who sits back and lets life happen to her. And she'll be very good at the hotel business.

Strindberg once apologized for having written Kristin as a flat character. Kulle's performance would make him see that he had put more there than he realized.

Goranzon's Miss Julie is less satisfying. There's something so sturdy in this actress, so very much to the point, that it's hard to see her as allowing one broken engagement and one roll in the hay with a servant to send her to the brink. Gorazon accounts for all of Julie's emotions magnificently, but she is their mistress rather than their victim.

If this were a Bergman film, Julie and Kristin would go off to start the hotel, leaving Jean to shine the master's shoes. Not a bad idea for a film at that. But this is Bergman the stage director, and every image, every moment makes its mark, even when you differ with the choice behind it. A lucid evening, with or without subtitles.

'MISS JULIE' August Strindberg's play, presented by the Los Angeles Festival at the James A. Doolittle Theatre. Produced by the Royal Dramatic Theatre of Sweden. Director Ingmar Bergman. Scenery and costumes Gunilla Palmstierna-Weiss. Lighting Hans Akesson. With Marie Goranzon, Peter Stormare, Gerthi Kulle, Eva Callenbo, Anna von Rosen, Paula Ternstrom, Peter Blomberg, John Svensson, Lars-Erik Johannson. Plays at 8 p.m. through Sunday. Tickets $20-$35. 1615 N. Vine St. (213) 622-3771.

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