Wednesday, September 25, 2019

"Free for All: A New “Miss Julie” for a New World"

Free for All: A New “Miss Julie” for a New World
Megan Cohen

Charlie Gray, Stacy Ross & Miyaka P. Cochrane
The setting is “Soon, San Francisco.”  The great frost’s snows are once again falling, and all the City’s hills are glistening in fresh snow.  Julie has stepped out of her home at the top of Nob Hill and is going for one last run down “the best slope in San Francisco,” madly screaming her delight along with copious “F-words” as she repeatedly jumps the steep slopes and barely lands upright – only adding more to her wanting never to end this slide down what is really her driveway. 

But the end is coming as is also coming the great thaw of decades of snow, the resulting flood waters, and maybe the end of the world ... as in coming probably tomorrow.  The question in front of her as she speeds forward is if there is still time to be someone else, someone better – “more thoughtful, more kind, more optimistic, mature; not as wild ... mean, selfish, reckless ... shitty.”  After another hard landing before going even faster, she wonders, “It’s not too late, is it?  What if it’s not too late to do a whole different thing ... With like, my life.”

With Julie’s words spilling out non-stop in the daredevil speed of a fearless downhiller, so begins Megan Cohen’s Free for All: A New “Miss Julie” for a New World, a loose and hilarious adaptation of August Strindberg’s original Miss Julie, now in fabulously funny and satirically smart world premiere at Cutting Ball Theater.  Knowledge of the 1888, naturalistic play with its Darwinist undertones and themes of a dying aristocracy; ridicule of the new, modern woman; and the better-fit-to-survive ‘new man’ is not necessary; but if one remembers the original, there are many references throughout in this updated version that lead to bonus chuckles.  But even a person who has never heard of Miss Julie and any of its play-, opera-, or film-adapted versions will find by the minute many reasons to laugh out loud and to revel in the linguistic gymnastics of a script that often seems to have no punctuation marks written into it.

Before middle-aged Julie does reach the bottom of her beloved Nob Hill run, she upends a much younger man carrying a bag of groceries.  John, it turns out, is the sous-chef in her mother’s servant-filled mansion – someone Julie has not noticed and thus does not know his name even after the three years he has worked there.  With a Noah-like flood coming within hours, the house’s chef has left to work on a submarine, and John is now head chef and in charge of the society event of the year tonight at Julie’s house – a kind of ‘melt-watch’ party.  The two banter back-and-forth in what is more and more like verbal foreplay, each crossing class boundaries that quickly get redrawn with reveals like the one that Julie mentions:  The family’s stand-by, escape helicopter is for family only – not servants like John.

Free for All is the first play to premiere under Cutting Ball Commissions (with the company’s plan being to stage a new, commissioned play every year).  During its two-year development, the two primary roles of Julie and John have been created with two of the Bay Area’s favorites in mind, Stacy Ross and Phil Wong. 

From the moment she heads down that hill spouting out comparisons between herself and other socialites (e.g., “over-dressed Samantha and her bad cheek implants” or “turn-the-other-cheek Elaine”) and wondering should she, could she be more like them (after all, “any person has 75 per cent the same DNA as a chicken” and thus she has “at least 73 per cent as Elaine”), there is no doubt only Stacy Ross could do such sarcastic and corny justice to Megan Cohen’s Julie.  With a mouth and face that stretch in every conceivable direction to the point of explosion as she skies ever faster, her Julie shoots like machine-gun bullets the joy of this moment, the regrets of her life thus far, the questions she has about possible improvement, and a whole slew of what if’s about the past and the probable, but still unknown future of the great melt.  And this all happens in just the opening minutes.  What we will see and witness the rest of the evening in Stacy Ross’ award-worthy, must-see performance cannot even begin to be described in any way to give it full justice.

Phil Wong with Rest of Cast
Likewise, Phil Wong’s oft-underplayed, aw-shucks approach to John is a delight to watch – an approach that begins to take on other, more daring, adventurous, and boundary-breaking angles and admissions as he and Julie encounter each other later in the kitchen where he meticulously prepares deviled eggs (a whole comedy routine on its own).  John is using these last few hours of a snow-covered world to find that “better version of myself,” fighting to stick to his resolve to quit smoking even as waters rise outside and tensions – sexual and otherwise – boil over in the kitchen between him and Julie.  As John, Phil Wong is a wonderful combination of humble, bold, sweet, angry, scared, and deeply prideful – all aspects which show themselves in the whirlwind of his and Julie’s kitchen close encounters as a wild party and a sudden climate change rage outside the walls of cupboards and counters.

Phil Wong & Stacy Ross
As in Strindberg, much of this play is consumed in the testy, teasing, and tempting backs-and-forth between Julie and John (the latter named Jean and a valet in Strindberg).  In Megan Cohen’s oft-bizarre update, other characters do enter – both seen and unseen.  Our primary actors appear also as two of the mansion party’s high-society, full-of-themselves guests, Brockingfeld Jacobson (Stacy Ross) and Jacobson Brockington (Phil Wong).  The two are a kind of Tweedledee/Tweedledum pair in their matching tuxes, mustaches, and high airs who down champagne while making obnoxious (to us, at least) comments like a woman’s job being “to make the world a nicer place ... bright and lovely” ... like a lamp” or “to remind us of innocence, of softness ... like a little pet kitten.” 

The drunker the two get, the more they brag on their own and the other’s business prowess and how they can soon make more fortunes when their fair City becomes the “San Francisco Islands” – beachfront properties to be known as “NobHillwaii” and “Sutrohiti.”  As they from time to time pause to dance a minuet, to twirl in sequence in their leather chairs, or to other wise mirror each other in their moves full of ego-splashed aristocracy, one can hear Strindberg laughing in cynical approval somewhere from his Swedish grave.  The Ross/Wong duo excels in antics that in the end could rival one of the great Vaudeville or ‘50’s-TV, comic duos.

Also very much present but never seen is Christine, a house maid and girl-friend of John who is addressed by both Julie and John by looking into the eyes – and sometimes right in the face – of individual audience members.  Christine plays important roles for both the J’s, and their one-way interactions with her and descriptions of her are more often than not,] guffaw producing (especially Julie’s fascination of Christine’s encounter with one dead pigeon on the driveway). 

Stacy Ross
And speaking of pigeons, just as there is a bird in a cage that plays a major role in Strindberg’s play, Chloe is the pet pigeon of our Julie – one of several pigeon encounters of both Julie and John throughout the evening.  All pigeons peck and fly about through the help of Puppeteers Miyaka P. Cochrane and Charlie Gray – puppeteers who also earlier enabled Julie to fly, leap, and bank with ease down the Nob Hill slope.  The two serve always deliciously and often devilishly like a silent Greek Chorus, observing Julie and John from kitchen corners and doorways with bemused looks, all-knowing eyes, and judging smirks. 

Director Ariel Craft, who also assisted in the play’s development, has given these two gifted actors free reign to use countless dimensions of their inbred talents to surprise us time and again with another singularly or duo-generated moment of hilarity.  At the same time, clearly the director’s intimate understanding of both Strindberg’s original and Megan Cohen’s vision has led to a play always on the edge of outlandish theatre-of-the-absurd while also being firmly planted in contemporary social and political commentary and critique. 

Jacqueline Wren Scott’s scenic design for the intimate Exit Theatre setting has some elements looking homemade (like draped bed sheets for snow hills) as if for a parlor’s spontaneous performance among friends while also employing wonderfully mobile elements of doorframes and a kitchen’s shelf and counter, among other roving pieces.  Director, scenic designer, and props designer Adeline Smith combine efforts for tongue-in-cheek hilarity using the likes of repeated appearances of an electric fan and several hues of torn paper bits that star in fun and telling parts of the story. 

The costumes of Racheal Heiman are so quickly changed that one cannot believe how clothing-elaborate and character-perfect each appearance of the primary actors is.  From pigeon’s coos to the wind of a skier’s run to the crash of melting ice and snow, James Ard has designed a wide array of perfectly timed sounds that add both drama and comedy.  Finally, Cassie Barnes’ lighting design against the stage’s black walls offers telling hints of bright, snowy cityscapes; a kitchen’s interior of shadows; and finally a world of new, tropical paradise.

Like in most world premiere ventures, not everything always holds together scene-to-scene in this new Miss Julie   Some character rants and rages – though usually hilarious – do go on and on a bit too long.  The ending itself is somewhat muddled and weird, but it is still an important reminder to San Franciscans who in society in the end too often survives and who does not.  The overall feeling upon exiting the Cutting Ball Theater is that tonight we have been fully engaged, intrigued, and entertained in a wonderfully conceived, adventuresomely directed, and extraordinarily acted Free for All: A New “Miss Julie” for a New World.

Rating: 4 E

Free for All: A New “Miss Julie” for a New World continues through October 20, 2019 as a world-premiere commission at Cutting Ball Theater at The Exit on Taylor, 277 Taylor Street, San Francisco.  Tickets are available at

Photos by Ben Krantz