Here’s the thing about an intense, unrelenting drama that focuses on a power struggle between two people: If the actors are not equally strong, equally adept at dredging up their truest, darkest emotions, equally committed to playing off each other moment by moment, then the dynamic just doesn’t work.
Unfortunately, such is the case with Actors Theatre of San Francisco’s production of August Strindberg’s 1888 one-act “Miss Julie.”
While lovely Melissa Ortiz crafts a complex, layered Julie — aristocratic, childlike, flirtatious, manipulative, neurotic, desperate, hysterical, cold, erotic and all the rest of the contradictory qualities that Strindberg’s given her — she’s forced to act in a vacuum.
That’s because Christian Haines — playing opposite her as deeply conflicted Jean, her father’s devoted servant — gives her nothing to work against.
On opening weekend, Haines, physically disengaged and charmless, stumbled through his lines in a rushed, wooden monotone, with neither conviction nor inflection.
Otherwise, “Miss Julie” would have been a fine choice for this actor-centric company that most often produces American classics.
Its small stage is tidily outfitted as a Swedish estate kitchen by designers Biz Duncan and Rebecca Martin, who also directed the show. Craig Lucas’ adaptation provides smooth contemporary prose, full of overt sexual references that were perhaps more covert in the Swedish original, but nevertheless don’t feel awkwardly vernacular.
Martin makes good use of the playing area, blocking part of a key scene slightly offstage but semi-visible, and pacing the action well.
The story, in which the restless and beautiful young daughter of the count seduces, and is seduced, by the servant on a drunken Midsummer’s Eve, is old European and dated in some respects: Class struggle and class prejudices, and the shamefulness of premarital sex, are not our issues.
But the age-old war between the sexes, in all its power shifts and ramifications, is electrifying.
Julie’s self-hatred and rage resonates. Her pleading “Say you love me,” after a night of lust, rings true in Ortiz’s colorful portrayal, as does her plaintive “I swore to my mother I wouldn’t be a slave to any man,” and her withering, poisonous, steely-eyed “I’d like to slaughter you like a pig.”
Actors Theatre regular Niki Yapo plays Jean’s fiancée, the cook Christine, with simple honesty; her portrait of a plain-talking, church-going peasant who knows right from wrong provides a clear contrast to the confused, rudderless Julie.
Presented by Actors Theatre of San Francisco and aMios
Where: 855 Bush St., S.F.
When: 8 p.m. Wednesdays-Saturdays; closes Sept. 8
Tickets: $26 to $38
Contact: (415) 345-1287, www.ActorsTheatreSF.org