Love Conquers Nothing
Pendulum Theatre Company
at the Loading Dock Theater
through September 15
Woody Allen's character in Manhattan called himself the "winner of the August Strindberg award" when it came to his fortunes with women, and it's not the kind of trophy one keeps polished and prominent on the mantel. In addition to the Swedish cultural behemoth's trio of marriages and (acrimonious) divorces, there's the matter of works such as his 1888 Miss Julie, in which the body of romance is pretty much poisoned, shot, strangled, and defamed for good measure.
It is also a play of almost unbearably unstinting impatience with the inequities and hypocrisies of human society, and Pendulum Theatre Company inaugurates its first season with an intelligent and coherent run at its bleak virtues. The setup is straight-ahead: It is Midsummer's Eve in a country manor, and the lord of the joint is off for a seasonal revel. His daughter, Julie (Karla Reck), fresh from a broken matrimonial engagement that went south following an unfortunate incident with a riding crop, opts to stay on the grounds and celebrate with her servants.
Salt of the earth, one supposes. But soon there's a serious complication: The reckless and haughty Julie brazenly flirts with servant smoothie Jean (Nathan Suprenant), eventually engineering the dalliance indoors and navigating the evening into deep and dangerous waters. In their world, Julie and Jean being alone together at night violates all sorts of social proprieties. Should they let nature take its course, the results would be nothing less than catastrophic.
You can guess what eventually happens, but it takes a while to get there. Along the way, Reck charts Julie's course with an emphasis on the character's heedless, almost random and scattershot will. Julie lords over the obsequious and formal Jean, all the while telling him, "Tonight we're equals." Within the hour, though, she's ordered him on his knees, his lips pressed hard against her booted instep.
Director Sarah Gioia extracts performances from the cast that are verbally precise if sometimes emotionally muddy (Reck penned this adaptation, accenting Strindberg's the-walls-are-closing-in dialogue while nicely sidestepping anachronisms of his moment or our own). Reck manages a great deal of raw power but misses the girlish lightness that underpins Julie's (eventual) self-destruction, and Suprenant is convincing when seething with anger toward his social superior, though it scarcely seems possible that his character could feel any real affection for her.
Strindberg's thumb is firmly on the scale on the latter matter, of course. Jean eventually calls Julie to account on her flirtation (Reck and Suprenant's foreplay in the kitchen comes across as part passion, part bar fight), and then entertains hopes that he can abscond with her and open a hotel in Switzerland. With his dream of being a "gentleman worth reckoning with," Jean is as pathetically deluded as his employer's daughter, and the two stay up through the night railing at one another, convincing themselves they are in love, and generally coming to understand that they are well and truly poleaxed according to the logic of their world.
Adding further complication is scullery maid Kristin (Corissa White), to whom Jean is ostensibly engaged and who becomes the voice of outraged conventionality when she discovers what went on during the night. In the early going, though, Kristin was brewing up an abortifacient for Miss Julie's pregnant dog; it isn't much of a stretch to infer Strindberg's comment on the Julie/Jean liaison, particularly after they spend stretches of the night hurling canine epithets at one another.
By the time the sun comes up, Jean and Julie take a stab or two at finding a way out, but happiness isn't in the cards. While at times this production meanders, Reck and Suprenant hit the home stretch by ratcheting up the energy. Jean hums and thrums with servile tics amid a final demonstration of his callous self-interest, and Julie locks into a final march to oblivion. It's a scenario in which passion always fails in the face of money and station, and contentment seems impossible. You'd almost think its author had a jaundiced view of love.
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