Ingmar Bergman stages Strindberg. Swedish director makes American debut with powerful `Miss Julie'

It was a fitting coda for a festival long on non-verbal art. Modern dance, avant-garde music, circus, and mime - such was the stuff of the Los Angeles Festival. Even the festival's epic centerpiece, ``The Mahabharata,'' succeeded as much through Peter Brook's striking staging as though dialogue. So when director Ingmar Bergman made his North American theatrical debut with Strindberg's ``Miss Julie,'' performed here in the original Swedish during the festival's final week, the production conveyed its theatrical power visually - with movement, gesture, and lighting - as orchestrated by one of the world's foremost moviemakers.

The creator of more than 40 films, including ``Wild Strawberries,'' ``Autumn Sonata,'' and ``Scenes From a Marriage,'' Bergman is now bringing to the stage the same claustrophobic aura and attention to surface detail that characterized his work in cinema.

In ``Miss Julie,'' a production by the Royal Dramatic Theatre of Sweden which received considerable acclaim during earlier runs in Stockholm and in the 1986 Edinburgh Festival, the result is a nearly flawless artistic union between that country's most famous dramatist and its foremost director.

The production borders on the definitive. For ``Miss Julie,'' the masterwork of August Strindberg - himself a champion of theatrical ``naturalism'' and chronicler of the uneasy relationships between men and women - is the kind of intense, intimate drama that Bergman so often brought to film.

In simplest terms, it is the story of a young aristocratic woman who is seduced by (or seduces) one of her servants, and, filled with remorse the next morning, kills herself. But what Strindberg wrote in 1888 as equal parts sociological and psychological portrait Bergman imbues with timeless insights. This production is not a quaint exercise in nostalgia nor a period piece. The characters' economic differences (as well as Strindberg's misogynic biases) disappear into the play's psychological fabric; the drama becomes an erotic dance of death between the constantly changing roles of master and servant, in which superiority is defined not by sex or breeding, but by mastery over self.

What makes the production so successful, even to a non-Swedish-speaking audience, is Bergman's examination of character by exploring the play's silences as well as its text. He has restored some important lines cut from Strindberg's original - lines that reveal Julie to be physically as well as emotionally disfigured, with scars from facial wounds inflicted by a spurned lover. And he has choreographed his actors' movements so exactingly that character is often revealed in a visceral way.

It is a savage ballet - this fateful courtship between Julie (Marie G"oranzon) and her father's manservant, Jean (Peter Stormare), set in the tight confines of the ash-blue basement-level kitchen. What begins with Julie's breezy and flirtatious manipulation of the proper Jean (she wants a dance partner on this balmiest of summer eves) becomes a deadly game of sexual power.

When Julie demands that Jean kiss her outstretched foot and, after a moment's hesitation, he seizes her bare leg, we see a momentary flicker of fear on her face. After their fateful tryst, Julie bursts from the room, a fully realized portrait of spiritual upheaval. Her consternation, which Strindberg conveys as a wringing of her hands and a powdering of her nose, Bergman kicks into higher gear. This Julie rakes her hands through her loosened hair and clutches at her half-opened bodice.

Conversely, Jean is transmogrified from the simpering, servile manservant into a study of powerless virility. Stormare, whose intensely physicalized performance is simply riveting, moves with the silky and fierce precision of a matador, alternately enticing and spurning his female prey. These two are not so much at war with each other as with themselves. Bergman ups the production's emotional ante by adding a strong sensual element with the play's third character, Kristin, the cook who is Jean's girlfriend. Performed by Gerthi Kulle, she becomes a woman who can clear a room with a glance.

Bergman's use of lighting in the production has been described as so intrinsic as to function as a ``chiaroscuro Greek chorus.'' His tableau-like staging is even more effective in setting the play's tempo and tone. The director keeps all the characters except Julie dressed in black and nearly always in profile. The production seethes with the ominous stillness of a Manet painting.

When the final bell rings propelling the protagonists to their individual fates - Julie to her death, her lover to his master - Jean accurately describes this summons, ``... It isn't just a bell. There's something behind it - a hand sets it in motion, and something else sets the hand in motion.''

In this production, that something else is Bergman's exceptional artistry.

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