For Whom the Bell Tolls: Dressing Miss Julie Gender Bends

On August 14, I headed downtown to the Lower East Side to catch a performance of Dressing Miss Julie, a gender-bending re-telling of August Strindberg’s classic play. Without knowing the original text, it took me until about halfway through the performance to figure out exactly what was going on. While the confusion was a little daunting and prevented me from thoroughly enjoying the piece, it definitely piqued my interest in reading Strindberg’s play. After absorbing the original, everything that Dressing Miss Julie covered made perfect sense and I would recommend any other potential audiences familiarize themselves with the original text as well. In Strindberg’s Miss Julie the daughter of a Count has a Midsummer Night tryst with a servant, thus throwing off the balance of the class system in the house. Raised by her father to maintain her feminine place in society and influenced by her mother to learn and employ traditions that are typically male, Miss Julie is confused by where her gender places her in this power struggle. Jean, the saucy servant with whom she shares her indiscretion, relishes this new sense of power over Miss Julie and uses it to nurture his more delicate sensibilities, thus tarnscending his traditional gender role in society as well. When these two come together, a full on battle of the sexes ensues to a dramatic and tragic conclusion.

While the sexuality and gender biases are more subtle in Strindberg’s play, the writers/actors Anna Kull and Justin Perkins put it right out in front of you. At the front of the house are positioned two large bells (a nod to how Jean is constantly plagued by the bell summoning him to his master) that the audience is encouraged to ring. Every time the bells are rung, the actors switch roles, costumes and genders. Removing the clothing that represents not only their genders but their places in society (hers being an upper class gown and his being a servant’s uniform) clearly helps to illustrate how easily this tryst makes it to strip down these costumes and change the power struggle. The message Dressing Miss Julie strives (and succeeds) in getting across is that social mores about class and gender are nothing more than costumes that can be removed with a flick of a zipper. Funny and fast-paced, Dressing Miss Julie is an interesting contemporary twist on a classic.

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