August Strindberg’s late-19th-century play Miss Julie was the inspiration for Julia, the incendiary one-act written and directed by ion Theatre Executive Artistic Director Claudio Raygoza. But don’t go looking for too many clues in Strindberg’s naturalistic work, which was twice made into a film. Raygoza’s Julia is not the oppressed daughter of a Swedish count, but a wronged wife of a Mexican politician who flouts her liberation (so she thinks) and exacts her revenge (sort of) by way of unseen hubby Ruben’s valet and cook. It’s full-throated, sexy, gun- and knife-wielding melodrama, with Catalina Maynard (in the title role) madly shifting, like a Formula One driver in a chicane, from haunted to seductive to explosive. The placid ‘70s trappings and the presence of a telescope (prop for an ongoing, cryptic eclipse allusion) aimed at a starry night sky belie the sense of desperation inside Senora Julia.
While the locale is the Coronado Cays, there is nothing soothing or laid-back in Raygoza’s script machinations. When valet Jacob (Jorge Rodriguez) isn’t practicing sublimation, he’s on the verge of either ravishing Julia or throttling her – we never know which. Their tango is half embrace, half mugging. Meanwhile, young Cristal (Anyelid Meneses) is ever apologizing and cowering, yet still manages to cook up a rabbit stew for dinner at Julia’s request. But they’re both under Maynard’s overpowering influence. She’s a charismatic specter toying with them from moment to teetering moment.
Maynard, memorable in ion’s stellar production of Angels in America last season, commands the black box stage in Hillcrest as if she owned it, and is, throughout the 90 minutes, daring Jorge, Cristal or anyone else to just try and infringe on her turf. The low-cut red dress she wears in the second half of the play leaps out against the low-key California-condo set by Brian Redfern, and the significance of red as a power color – or a dangerously sexual one -- is not lost in these proceedings.
Rather than make a significant case for Julia’s empowerment or her surrender, the play culminates with a kind of exhaustion, on all sides, though we suspect that the resourceful Senora will live to love and fight another day.
David L. Coddon is a Southern California theater critic.