Yaël Farber’s adaptation of Strindberg’s classic Miss Julie, Mies Julie shifts the scene and setting from 1880’s Sweden to the Karoo in South Africa on Freedom Day in 2012–or the anniversary of Nelson Mandela’s election in 1994–which is long after apartheid was outlawed. Such changes shift Strindberg’s focus on the class system to matters of racism and apartheid today, when, despite any suggestions that we’ve transcended such problems, racist incidents continue to be in the news every day. They also make the play far more relevant than the antique penned by Strindberg, although ironically, it was far ahead of its time when it was written.
Indeed, a large part of Ms. Farber’s “message” appears to be that even after apartheid was ostensibly suspended, its uglier aspects continued–and continue today–to inform interracial relations. In this case, the crucial relationship is between the white Julie (Elise Kibler), the daughter of a Boer planter, and the black John (James Udom). As the son of Julie’s family cook, Christine (Patrice Johnson Chevannes), John grew up with the teen-aged girl. (In the original Strindberg play, Christine was John’s fiancée, so this is yet another change conceived by Farber.)
When the play begins, Christine is cleaning up in the kitchen, while her son is polishing his master’s boots and sharpening a scythe, which comes to gory use later.
The play is set in real time, on the day that Julie comes to the kitchen and acts on her love for John. Considering the difference not only in their skin color but also, yes, class–John is, after all, Julie’s servant–he resists as long as he can. But Julie’s persistent flirting with him eventually gets him to succumb, and they have (simulated) sex on the kitchen table in a convincing way–as if it were real.
What’s most pronounced about Mies Julie are the opposite feelings that Julie and John harbor for one another–not only love and attraction but also contempt and resentment. If not for the violence of their passions, they would seem to define ambivalence. And what’s most notable about the production is how Kibler and Udom seem to keep those conflicting emotions in play at any given moment.
Kibler displays a vitality and volatility, as she stalks and moves in a feline manner. Udom proves more thunderous, without ever betraying the inherent contradictions of his character. Together they prove a force to be reckoned with on the current New York stage.
As directed by Shariffa Ali, there is both a naturalistic bent, à la Strindberg’s intentions, as well as a spiritual quality to the proceedings, appropriate to Ms. Farber’s added emphasis on supernatural phenomena. These include a ghostly figure dressed like a witch doctor, who parades around the action in the kitchen at various times, and in at least one scene, appears to represent Christine’s long deceased mother. She also enters the scene yet again when Julie and John fornicate, as an unseen presence hovering around them. The spectral figure is named Ukhoho, and she’s played by the estimable Vinie Burrows, who doesn’t have a line to speak.
The phantom’s one wild costume as well as the more simple and normal ones for the other players have all been designed by Ntokozo Fununina Kunene and Andrew Moerdyk. The ordinary and plain set design is by David L. Arsenault, and the more effective lighting–now bright and then dim–is by Stacey Derosier.
Mies Julie (through March 10, 2019)
Classic Stage Company
Lynn F. Angelson Theater, 136 East 13th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-352-3101 or visit http://www.classicstage.org
Running time: 75 minutes without an intermission