Juliet and Julie: Hot (up)Dates

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This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk.

It was just a matter of time before an LA Theater presented Shakespeare's tale of star-crossed lovers with Juliet in low-riding jeans and Ugg boots. Joe Regalbuto's production of Romeo and Juliet is getting a fair amount of attention for updating the feud between the Capulets and Montagues to our own era of partisan politics--but reframing the two houses as Republicans and Democrats is not really what this production is about.

Sure, the play's program shows a map of the US with Blue States and Red States--and yes Lord Capulet wears a flag pin on his blazer--but Regalbuto's slimmed-down, carb-free take on the Bard has more to do with his own family affairs than the state of the union. Regalbuto's own daughter plays Juliet and so when scenes are trimmed, the absence of Romeo in the much second half of the play is not meant as a symbol of say, the 43rd President lacking a male heir. Beyond the initial conceit, the staging and costumes rarely make any direct comment on the politics of today. Once you decipher which family is the GOP and accept the staging's modern setting, what follows is simply a shortened version of an old play using contemporary California costumes and, like, accents.

There's nothing wrong with this style of easy update, and perhaps the handful of audience members who haven't seen Baz Luhrman's adaptation on cable, will find new relevance in Shakespeare's timeless love story; but ultimately it's not really a new take on the material, it's just Juliet in Uggs.

In bold contrast, Stephen Sachs' adaptation of August Strindberg's Miss Julie is a clever and thorough reinvention of a classic play. Strindberg's 1888 drama was censored after it was published and it wasn't until almost twenty years later when his native Sweden allowed Miss Julie to be performed. Sachs' takes the play out of 19th century Europe and drops it in 1964 Mississippi. In order to preserve the play's scandalousness. He's transformed Strindberg's working-class servant, Jean, into a black, chauffeur named John. Miss Julie herself remains the spoiled aristocrat; but instead of a frilly petticoat, she wears a sweaty, red dress.

Theses parallels between the crumbling social structures in Imperial Europe and the unrest of the civil-rights era don't always line up, but the results are interesting. Sachs freely changes the text to include references to Lyndon Johnson and whereas Strindberg has Jean conclude the play with the line "But there's no other end to it," Sachs has John say "by any means necessary" as he hands Miss Julie a knife.

What's most impressive about Sachs' work as adaptor and director is his attention to detail. The decision to update the play is well researched--even the calendar date, July 4 1964, perfectly corresponds with the play's Saturday Night/Sunday morning setting.

Just as the adaptation works, for the most part, so too does the acting. Individually, the performances are impressive. Tracy Middendorf creates the most complex portrait, turning Miss Julie into a southern psychological mess worthy of Tennessee Williams. She brings a rawness to the part which keeps Sachs' ripe dialogue from descending into Dixieland-style caricature. Chuma Gault is a strong, charismatic John and Judith Moreland is a subtle, steady Christine. Unfortunately, the three actors never quite connect as an ensemble. Perhaps this will improve over the course of the run--it's just been announced that the production is extending until May.

Like the pots in Sachs' southern kitchen, the overall effect of the drama never quite reaches full boil. Still, there are still plenty of fireworks in this Miss Julie--which befits Strindberg's story about freedom sexual politics, updated to America's Independence Day.

The Fountain Theatre's Miss Julie continues through May 6; Romeo and Juliet at the Art/Works Theatre closes this Saturday.

This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk for KCRW.