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'Miss Julie' Sheds Light On L.a. Festival

October 04, 1987|DAN SULLIVAN

It's all over but the shouting. But as the Los Angeles Festival slowly sinks into the West, the mood isn't to shout but to give an appreciative sigh.

The image has got to come from Ingmar Bergman's twilit staging of "Miss Julie" at the James A. Doolittle Theatre. One didn't know what to expect from this show, except that it would be played exactly as it was at the Royal Dramatic Theatre in Stockholm, which is to say, in Swedish--without a running translation. Would this be a big issue?

Hard to say. On the one hand, a play's first line of defense--all that's really there when the actors start working on it--is its text. If the listener can't understand what the characters are supposed to be saying to each other, he's obviously going to come up short.

Yet a play isn't just its lines. It's everything that the actors and the director have found to tuck between the lines and under them, until the lines come to seem a byproduct of the situation, rather than its determinant. It's the moves and the waits, the rasp in the heroine's voice, the way the light hits the floor.

To read these things, all the audience needs is eyes and ears. Given a general grasp of a play's story line--and this you do have to have: the magic of the theater only goes so far--the listener ought to be able to follow the play in a foreign language without a bug in his ear. In fact, the translation from the booth can set up an annoying competition with the sound of the actors' voices.

All this in theory. But two hours of Strindberg in Swedish could turn out to be drab. I'd once seen a production of "A Dream Play" in Stockholm (not at the Royal Dramatic Theatre) that seemed to take longer than "The Mahabharata." We would have to see.

Bergman's "Miss Julie" was notable first for its magic use of light. That's not to down-rate Bergman's actors--Marie Goranzon as Miss Julie (older than usual); Peter Stormare as her servant, Jean (more respectable than usual); Gerthi Kulle as the kitchen maid, Kristin (more of a personage than usual).

And it's not to imply that Bergman and his lighting designer, Hans Akesson, were up to any particular tricks. Only once did the lighting jump out at us, in the harsh morning-after scene; and Strindberg had asked for the effect.

He had also wanted the effect of the sun going down on Midsummer Eve, the longest evening (and shortest night) of the year. Not so as to make a pretty picture, but so as to convey the restlessness of those long evenings on the Arctic rim. Perpetual sunset --as Stephen Sondheim had noted in "A Little Night Music" (based on Bergman's own "Smiles of a Summer Night')-- is rather an unsettling thing .

But theater lighting in Strindberg's day was rudimentary. No one could have painted him a sunset as subtle and as convincing as Akesson could do for Bergman--all the more convincing in that we never saw it directly, but inferred it from what we could see of the sky through the kitchen windows.

Light is supposed to fade as night comes on. We were reminded here that it can actually grow richer. Rather than the light becoming less substantial in Kulle's kitchen, it took on body and mystery as the sun dropped to the horizon. Just before night officially came on, the windows held a strange wine color, almost a blush.

Then the room went black. But never so black that you couldn't see another figure moving towards you, although you couldn't be sure of the face. . . .

And then--like a flashlight in the face--it was morning.

Bergman's players moved through the light like chameleons, feeling its weight on their skin, letting it color their moods. One of the things that Strindberg had hoped to prove as a theatrical naturalist was that human beings weren't fixed characters , but giddy, changeable creatures--what William James called theaters of emotion. The flow of this production made the point very well.

Goranzon's Julie would throw herself on her emotions, like a widow throwing herself on a pyre, then call for a glass of wine as scornfully as the fine lady that she had been raised to believe she was, then--suddenly outside the situation--find the whole thing vaguely funny.

Stormare's Jean could turn on a dime from the proper servant, to the bully, to the cringing slave, to the little boy going to his mother (or nearest substitute) for comfort. Which was the real Julie, the real Jean? It depended on the light.

Kulle's Kristin, however, was no chameleon. Bergman broke with tradition (at least American tradition) in making this "Miss Julie" Kristin's story as well. In some ways, it was the most interesting story of all, she being the most determined of them all.

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