When I first encountered August Strindberg’s 1888 play Miss Julie, my strongest feeling was that I wanted to re-write it, line-by-line. I loved how schizophrenic and weird and juicy it was””sexual power whips back and forth, there are instances of somnambulism, pantomimes, destructive dances, the onstage killing of a bird, an unseen and all-powerful off-stage character””lots of stuff to sink my teeth into.
But the notions at the play’s core felt dated to me. Despite whatever “modern” tapestry I hung over Strindberg’s “naturalistic tragedy”””through costumes, customs, behavior, music, setting””I had a hard time imagining a current scenario where a young woman is trying desperately to escape the upper class, but can’t because she fears her father’s domineering scorn. I wanted to run amok in the weird and wonderful class-crumbling world of Miss Julie, but only if it had some reverberation from a world that I know””and for me that is Appalachia.
I grew up in a very small, very rural town in the boondocks of Pennsylvania. We were poor, but not as stricken as many of the people that I encountered on my paper route. I delivered newspapers to houses with dirt floors, houses whose acrid smell still curdles my tongue, pungent from years of filthy kids, filthy parents and even filthier pets. I experienced the profound boredom of a small town, and the subsequent aggression, bad behavior and nihilism that inevitably follows on the coattails of dead-end poverty, where there’s nowhere to go but farther down the ladder.
As I thought about Miss Julie in that milieu, I got excited””to look at class, not so much as the master/servant power dichotomy that Strindberg sets up, but as one of boss/proletariat””a milieu where, on the brink of impending financial doom, the characters throw Hail Mary passes into the end zones of their lives. The prevailing desire is TO ESCAPE””a wholly American notion to me, drilled into us by Hollywood, made even more unattainable now in these discombobulating economic times. So, with this in mind, I sat down and rewrote Miss Julie line-for-line, making the sentiments more blunt and vulgar, attempting to leave Strindberg’s world as a frame upon which I could hang my own world.
For a long time, I’ve been fascinated by “Pittsburghese,” the idiosyncratic language and oddly unmistakable dialect that is spoken by natives of Pittsburgh””the “yinzers,” as they are called. It’s mysterious and funny and worked well to accentuate the class difference between the upper class Julie and her counterparts, the re-named Donnie and Chrissie. I layered in as much Pittsburghese as I felt like I could get away with. It was challenge, first, because I have a hard time resisting a joke. With terms like “Hershey squirt,” “lunch head” and the ultimate insult, “jagoff,” I was working in dangerous semantic terrain. I needed to stay true to the characters and ensure that each was handled with absolute integrity, especially the yinzers, Donnie and Chrissie. When this vernacular butted up against some of Strindberg’s more eloquent writing, I chose to retain his lyricism, giving credence to the emotional depth of the lower class.
I changed many of the circumstances so that they would be relevant to the here and now. The Count went from Julie’s domineering father to her neglectful husband. The estate became a liquidated car dealership. The escape plan changed from running a hotel in Switzerland to Donnie opening his own dealership in Florida, the “redneck Riviera,” as it’s called, a sort-of nirvana in the eyes of many Appalachians. Julie and Donnie are a good 10-15 years older than Strindberg’s characters, desperately staring down the loaded barrel of the rest of their lives.
In my writing phase, one word stuck in my head, reminiscent of Pennsylvania Dutch””“cattywampus”. The more I thought about that word, the more I realized just how relevant Strindberg’s askew world view, under this new guise, is to our world today. Things are truly cattywampus right now””awkward, crooked, out-of-whack.
As we rehearsed for the initial production of our trailer park Miss Julie at the fantastically claustrophobic Son of Semele Theater, we discovered just how American this story is. For many, class lines have blurred, savings have been decimated, houses have become liabilities, unemployment is the norm, and many of us are looking for ways out. We’re waking up from the American dream, opening the cupboards and finding less and less. With Cattywampus, we’ve tried to create an authentic picture of our world today. With the monumental addition of Jordana Che Toback’s traditional two-stepping and line dancing and Juli Crockett’s live, sweeping western underscore, what has emerged is an aggressively vivid picture of economic paranoia, filtered through impulsive decisions and the dream of escaping in a Ford Pinto to a place that seems far, far away””the Florida Keys.
Cattywampus is presented as part of REDCAT’s 8th Annual New Original Works Festival being held from September 8-24 with performances Thursday through Saturdays at 8:30 pm.
WEEK TWO | September 15-17
Robert Cucuzza: Cattywampus, Rosanna Gamson/World Wide: Layla Means Night
WEEK THREE | September 22-24
Tandem & Timur and the Dime Museum: Zoophilic Follies, Michel Kouakou/Daara Dance: Sack, Victoria Marks: Smallest Gesture/Grandest Frame
SINGLE TICKETS: $18 general, $14 students; FESTIVAL PASSES: $36 for all 3 programs
FOR TICKETS & INFO: Visit: www.redcat.org, call 213 237-2800Â or drop by the REDCAT box office
LOCATION: REDCAT (Roy and Edna Disney/CalArts Theater), 631 West 2nd Street, LA.
Robert Cucuzza is a theater artist, filmmaker, actor, and acting teacher. As a playwright and director in LA, he has directed the world premiere of Iannis Xenakis’ Pour la Paix at REDCAT, Jillian Lauren’s Mother Tongue at the Steve Allen Theater, and Measure for Measure and Hellzapoppin’ (also writer) at CalArts. Previously in New York, he spent six years as an artist-in-residence at Richard Foreman’s Ontological Theater where he mounted many highly-acclaimed original plays. As a stage actor he has performed in New York, regionally and internationally in works by Foreman’s Ontological-Hysteric Theater and Elevator Repair Service.Â He has taught acting at CalArts, where he holds an MFA in Directing and was the recipient of a Beutner Family Award for Excellence in the Arts. www.robertcucuzza.com
** Cattywampus production photos by Joseph Rockland; Robert Cucuzza headshot by Kosta Potamianos