That's Mr. Julie to you

A tour inside August Strindberg's head.

AT THIS RATE, they're really going to have stop calling themselves Theater Simple. Oh, I know that the artistic duet of Llysa Holland and Andrew Litzky pride themselves on their thrifty production values, with sets and costumes that can be stored in the back of a station wagon (they do a lot of touring). But increasingly the material they tackle is anything but "simple." Last year we had the epic adaptation of Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita, with its multiple interlocked plot lines and characters that included Jesus Christ, the Devil, and a large black cat. This time around, under the direction of Empty Space founder Burke Walker, they've pushed headfirst into the very strange writings of Swedish playwright August Strindberg.

Strindberg in Paris

On the Boards, February 25-28

Strindberg (1849-1912) is primarily remembered for his plays, particularly the powerful one-act Miss Julie, and to a lesser extent for his autobiographical novels. But in 1894 he decided that, despite his recent literary successes, he was done with the world of the theater and would instead devote himself to science and philosophy. A letter from a friend sent him across Europe to Paris, where he was determined to find the answers to all sorts of universal questions through mathematical, chemical, and alchemical means.

What he found instead is the subject of Strindberg in Paris, a piece devised between the actors and director, and culled from the writings of the playwright. The trio of actors (Charles Leggett is the invaluable third man) begin the evening by entering the stage one by one and applying a grease-paint goatee, using a photo of Strindberg as their reference. Once in character, each actor assumes a remarkable relationship with the other two, at times rivalrous, at times speaking in chorus, and occasionally helping to create the world that one of their fellow faux-Strindbergs describes, becoming fellow passengers on a train, a woman in a churchyard, or even clouds and lampposts as the need arises.

Several times, the three also slip into scenes from Miss Julie, swapping roles (and genders) each time to present episodes in this landmark tragedy of the battle of the sexes. While this material is rough going, it's nothing compared to the main interest of the show—charting the "discoveries" that Strindberg made during his time in Paris. The horizon, it turns out, is not curved; therefore, it's unlikely that the earth is round. The souls of the dead can be trapped from where they float in cemeteries and revived under the microscope, though they smell so bad it's hardly worth the effort. And men, it is revealed, can become pregnant, if foreign sperm should become lodged inside them.

This last assertion is the most obvious example of Strindberg's rampant misogyny, which is under the surface of all his dramatic writings but appears in all its naked and ludicrous glory in these "scientific" papers. But the troupe slyly points up that the playwright's hatred of women came from a hysterical fear of their domination. It's not only Strindberg's creations, but the playwright himself who longs to kiss the patent-leather shoe of his love.

AS WE PROGRESS on the rollercoaster of his increasingly wild (and, from a scientific point of view, astonishingly wrong) thoughts, Strindberg's musings increasingly dip into paranoia and madness until he becomes convinced that the very forces of nature are conspiring to do him in. Charting his mental breakdown is as difficult a journey for the audience as for the cast. It's hard work understanding bad science, and as the playwright becomes less and less rational, the human element at times disappears in a whirl of words and lightning-fast theatrical turns. One of the few moments of relief from this downward spiral is a delightful letter written by the playwright's sister-in-law, which describes his eccentric behavior with bemused affection even when it involves slashing behind his back with a fork to drive demons away.

While the impulse behind this piece may have been a theatrical labor of love (this is a playwright who remains, in this country at least, respected more by academicians than enjoyed by audiences), the troupe's theatrical inventiveness, its generous doses of humor, and its high expectations for its audience are entirely a pleasure. It's at times a harrowing journey, but our guides are so skilled and good-humored that there's never any doubt of a happy landing.

 
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