Startup theater companies doing classics in drafty old buildings is one thing that promises to keep my job interesting. So there's ample reason to celebrate Phase 3 staging Miss Julie at the Brew House. What puzzles is how Strindberg's 1888 work fulfills the company's stated mission of socially relevant theater.
The story of a count's spoiled, capricious daughter's brief, torrid and ultimately tragic affair with her father's stableman was surely provocative, once. And indeed, there's still bite to the groundbreaking Strindberg's methodical mapping of each class-conscious pressure point and bitter irony of a risky, transgressive upstairs-downstairs relationship.
Trouble is, the play turns on a premise essentially vanished from contemporary society: the idea that a rich, unmarried woman would be ruined by sex with a social inferior.
Of course, a play needn't be written (or set) today to be relevant today; timeless themes of honor and integrity echo in works like Ibsen's Enemy of the People, for instance. But while there remain plenty of provocative things to say about social class in America -- not the least being that it still exists -- Miss Julie's storyline from 19th-century Sweden (transposed to Ireland) doesn't resonate with many of them.
Phase 3 has a good pedigree. Co-founder Melissa Grande, who runs the marketing department for Pittsburgh Irish & Classical Theatre, has substantial theatrical training and experience, as do conspirators Rachel S. Parent, Dek Ingraham and J.R. Shaw. The fledgling troupe's seriousness and credibility is attested by the solid Miss Julie production, with its imaginative set (the walls are made of white linens, bloomers and shirts draped from laundry lines) and good performances by the youthful cast, including Nicki Mazzocca, Terry Hoge and Alyssa Herzog in the title role.
In other words, thematic carping aside, it's not a bad start at all. (There are five more performances through Sun., Nov. 30, at the South Side landmark; see www.phase3productions.org.) The troupe's inaugural season continues in 2009, with Jean Anouilh's The Lark (as adapted by Lillian Hellman) and the Pittsburgh premiere of Swamp Baby, a new play by Aaron Carter. There's plenty of reason to hope Phase 3 will fulfill its promise to explore the concerns of the present.