Stacy Ross and Phil Wong are excellent in Cutting Ball Theater’s world premiere of Megan Cohen’s “Free For All.” (Courtesy Ben Krantz)

Cutting Ball reimagines ‘Miss Julie’ with panache

‘Free For All’ cleverly updates Strindberg classsic

Cutting Ball Theater’s season opener, “Free For All,” subtitled “a new ‘Miss Julie’ for a new world,” is a reminder of the company’s sterling reputation as a theater that often explores the classics in new, exciting ways.

It opens with a modern-day, middle-aged Julie skiing joyfully down Nob Hill while, in a rapid, stream-of-consciousness monologue, vowing to change her life, become a better person.

Whether she will or not is only one of the issues that drives the plot.

Local playwright Megan Cohen’s dystopian comedy-drama, developed with and directed by the company’s artistic director Ariel Craft, fires on all cylinders. There’s even a house on fire.

Like August Strindberg’s 1888 “Miss Julie,” it’s a one-act that cannily explores gender roles and class divisions, but all within the context of a climate-change disaster. It’s a lot of context for a one-act play, but not too much for this artistic team.

Rather than taking place on one long midsummer night in a Swedish mansion, Cohen’s setting is San Francisco, mostly in a manor atop Nob Hill, and mostly on one significant night. It’s the final snowfall before a flood that will turn the remaining remnants of the city into a tropical island.

As socialites party in another room — Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons” cleverly plays in the background — Julie takes refuge in the kitchen, where house cook John is meticulously preparing a complicated deviled egg, in real time, for his fiancée, the housemaid Christine.

An ambiguous relationship slowly and organically develops between acerbic and anti-social heiress Julie (Stacy Ross, who illuminates every iota of the character’s contradictory, complex psyche) and John (an endearingly uneasy and impulsive Phil Wong).

All the while, the hapless maid dozes nearby — but, and it’s a startling but canny artistic choice — the audience is Christine.

In an ongoing and ominous motif adapted from Strindberg, bird puppets (including a street pigeon, Julie’s caged pet she clearly prefers over humans) peck and flutter about. They’re cleverly manipulated by Miyaka P. Cochrane and Charlie Gray, who double as tech support and a sort of silent Greek chorus, watching askance at the kitchen antics.

And in one wonderfully satirical scene, Ross and Wong, with fake mustaches and cigars, play a pair of party guests: soused, entitled, sexist, misogynist.

The ending drags on too long — often a flaw in new plays — but that’s a minor complaint. This is a fascinating, beautifully staged world premiere.

REVIEW

Free For All

Where: Cutting Ball Theater, 277 Taylor St., S.F.

When: 2 or 7 p.m. most Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays, 2 or 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 or 7 p.m. Sundays; closes Oct. 20

Tickets: $15 to $45

Contact: (415) 525-1205, cuttingball.com

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