Partying Like it’s 2099 at Cutting Ball's 'Free For All'

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Stacy Ross skis down the San Francisco slopes with Charlie Gray (left) and Miyaka P. Cochrane (right) in 'Free For All: A New “Miss Julie” for a New World.' (Ben Krantz)

Everything we see we want to possess. –Sting

Sometimes attending a play is like attending a party. The energy crackles, the assembled audience is alert and engaged, and everyone onstage looks like they’re just having so much damn fun. On such nights, it feels like if you just stick around long enough, maybe they'll haul you up there to be a part of the in crowd, or at least top off your glass.

In Cutting Ball Theater’s Free for All: A New Miss Julie for a New World, written by Megan Cohen and directed by Ariel Craft, we see August Strindberg’s Miss Julie deconstructed to a bare frame, then filled extravagantly back up with madcap futurism, and all of our modern-day concerns explored to their most strangely logical extremes.

Worried about climate change? Just wait until the snows melting off of Nob Hill drown the lower-lying neighborhoods. Concerned about the ingrained misogyny and power dynamics that led to the #MeToo movement? Your introduction to power-bros Brockingfield and Jacobson won't alleviate those concerns (though they will make you laugh). Have feelings about the destructive nature of unchecked capitalism? Have another tiny donut and a cigar. Or a deviled egg and a cigarette. In the world of Free for All, even the vices are indicative of class position.

Stacy Ross (left) and Phil Wong (right) as power-bros Brockingfield and Jacobson in 'Free For All: A New “Miss Julie” for a New World.' (Ben Krantz)

Actors Stacy Ross and Phil Wong—as Julie and Brockingfield, and John and Jacobson, respectively—elevate their roles to hilarious heights. Ross is especially mesmerizing as she chafes visibly against the smoothly aristocratic shell that is her birthright. In the opening scene, she skis down the “slope” of Nob Hill, exalting and cursing with equal vigor. Later, when she flirts with John in the kitchen, she almost coos; when she slaps him, she laughs with impudent delight. When she gets a hot flash, the whole theatre feels as if it’s increased in temperature with her. When she’s disgusted within her own skin, you get the feeling that she might just peel it right off.


Between the two actors flows a current of chummy, professional camaraderie, which only occasionally intrudes on the scene, especially in moments where we understand by John’s words and actions that he’s being chauvinistic, but Wong doesn’t quite make it feel genuine. His Jacobson fares better in that particular regard, but always with a nod and a wink.

A pair of puppeteers (Charlie Gray and Miyaka P. Cochrane) spend much of their time onstage blending into the background, reacting silently to the puerile antics of the named characters, using confetti to represent snow, flood, flame. They also manipulate the action of two different pigeon puppets—a pampered but captive pigeon in a cage and a rough-and-tumble scrapper from the streets. (Yes, it’s a metaphor.)

Phil Wong (right, front) as John, Stacy Ross as Julie (back middle), with puppeteers Miyaka P. Cochrane (back left), and Charlie Gray (back right) in 'Free For All: A New “Miss Julie” for a New World.' (Ben Krantz)

The set, designed by Jacqueline Wren Scott, is spartan but fully mobile, playfully morphing from the ski slopes of Nob Hill to its last remaining kitchens with a flick of a bedsheet. The sound design by James Ard is deliberately cloying, heavy on the Vivaldi, and the lighting by Cassie Barnes leans into surrealistic flourish. The last time I saw Strindberg performed at Cutting Ball Theater, in an epic marathon in 2012, the experience was significantly more monochromatic. This is not that Strindberg.

As a treasured Cohen theme dating back at least as far as her stellar 2011 short play A Three Little Dumplings Adventure, hunger drives much of the action. From Julie’s ravenous inhalation of her servant’s supper, to Jacobson’s petulant quest for more champagne and donuts, or John’s memory of eating his feelings by stuffing himself with dumpstered danish, consumption is the underlying thread. Or at least a desire to possess: John dares to imagine that he can be Julie’s equal (or master), Brockingfield pontificates that he knows how to turn a profit even on the end of the world, and the party devolves into a final desperate orgy.

Stacy Ross (middle) as Julie, accompanied by her “henchmen,” Charlie Gray (left) and Miyaka P. Cochrane (right) in 'Free For All: A New “Miss Julie” for a New World.' (Ben Krantz)

One of Cutting Ball Theater’s new initiatives under the artistic direction of Ariel Craft is one of playwright commissioning—with Cohen the first recipient. If their wildly imaginative comedic romp through a doomed San Francisco is anything to go by, this initiative will be one to watch for seasons to come.

As for what this play portends for our not too-distant future, the outlook is significantly less hopeful. Unless, of course, you have the money to buy a good chunk of stock in hydropower, or a soon-to-be beachfront property up by Grace Cathedral. If you dig beneath the playful trappings of frolic, you’ll find a pretty damning indictment of capitalist myopia, classism, and corporate greed. But like any good party, everyone is invited to come and decide for themselves what to get out of it.

'Free for All: A New Miss Julie for a New World' runs through Oct. 20 at Cutting Ball Theater in San Francisco. Details here.