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Breathing new life into a classic Miss Julie'

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Midcoast Actor's Studio to tour Strindberg production

BELFAST/TENANTS HARBOR Classic works of theatre sometimes get a bad rap. Too many people immediately dismiss older works as inaccessible, despite the fact that so many of them are built around themes whose universality hasn't diminished in the years since they were first written and produced.

Take August Strindberg's 'Miss Julie,' for example. The play, written in 1888, was the subject of scandal in its day due to its frank depictions of sexuality and unflinching portrayal of class dichotomy subjects that still inspire discussion and debate to this very day.

The Midcoast Actor's Studio has chosen 'Miss Julie' adapted by Penny Penniston, head of the playwriting program at Northwestern University - as its second production, following up their summer offering of Henrik Ibsen's 'Hedda Gabler.' The show will run Dec. 14-16 at the Troy Howard Middle School in Belfast and Dec. 21-22 at the St. George Odd Fellows Hall in Tenants Harbor.

Jean (Jason Bannister) is the valet to a count, acting as a personal manservant and providing any and all services required by a member of the nobility. We meet him in the kitchen of the manor on a midsummer night; the cook Kristen (Jen Oldham) prepares him a late-night meal as he relates to her the bad behavior and social impropriety being committed by the count's daughter, Miss Julie (Marie Merrifield).

Before long, Miss Julie has made her way into the kitchen, flouting her position and making demands, finally dragging Jean out into the revels for 'just one dance.' Kristen who is also Jean's occasional lover is dismissed by the lady of the house; soon, the interactions between Jean and Miss Julie begin to lose their formality, becoming something both far more and somehow much less than a typically acceptable relationship between mistress and servant.

The two find themselves on a dangerous path, blurring the very distinct lines that their respective social statuses demand and making decisions that will impact them both not just in the short term, but for the rest of their lives.

A show like 'Miss Julie' makes heavy demands of its actors. This is a show whose impact comes from the truths in relationships both the surface 'truth' and the deep-down marrow truth. The adaptation in particular demands much from its actors; the entire play unfolds within the cramped confines of the estate's kitchen. The dense dialogue is rich and thick with expression, and in that small space, the words are all you have.

Bannister is imposing as the socially aspirant Jean; his ambitions are clothed in a veneer of dignity. In Bannister's capable hands, Jean becomes a man who is capable of anything. He is a man whose only power comes from his words a power whose mastery he demonstrates easily. The resonant tone of Bannister's voice only serves to enhance that power. The flightiness of Miss Julie could easily become a distraction in the hands of a less skilled performer; Merrifield turns that flightiness into a weapon, allowing her to be so much more than a mere girl. Her wild vacillations could come off as weak-willed. Instead, they become layers of the onion, gradually peeling away and revealing the complicated, confused woman that lay beneath. One might be tempted to dismiss Kristen as a minor part, but Oldham embraces the character, creating a richly realized person who proves to have the purest motivations of anyone involved. She comports herself with decency and decorum, displaying good sense and a good heart.

Bannister also serves as the director of the play; he clearly has both a great understanding of and great affection for the material. That understanding plays out in the storytelling; while aspects of the tale might seem a bit dated, there is an unwavering clarity in its depiction. And the affection is apparent in the passion displayed by all involved. Without passion, this play could easily fall flat. With it, it becomes an engaging glimpse at love, status and the consequences of our actions.

'Miss Julie' is an undeniably challenging work. But there's nothing wrong with that. Midcoast Actor's Studio isn't afraid of that challenge. You shouldn't be either. It's a classic tale with a modern sensibility. It's also well worth the trip.

For more information about Midcoast Actor's Studio and their production of 'Miss Julie,' visit their website at midcoastactors.org or find them on Facebook.

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