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Mies Julie

The passions unleashed in Yaël Faber’s contemporary South African adaptation of Strindberg’s play are so raw, so violent that they would be hard to take twice.

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Elise Kibler and James Udom in a scene from Yaël Farber’s adaptation of Strindberg’s “Mies Julie” at Classic Stage Company(Photo credit: Joan Marcus)

David Kaufman

David Kaufman, Critic

I did not catch Mies Julie when it played at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn in 2012, which is probably just as well: the passions it traffics in are so raw, so violent, that they would be hard to take twice. In the meantime, it should at least be seen once.

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.)

Elise Kibler and James Udom in a scene from Yaël Farber’s adaptation of Strindberg’s “Mies Julie” (Photo credit: Joan Marcus)

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.

James Udom, Elise Kibler and Patrice Johnson Chevannes in a scene from Yaël Farber’s adaptation of Strindberg’s “Mies Julie” (Photo credit: Joan Marcus)

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

 

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David Kaufman
About David Kaufman (97 Articles)
David Kaufman has been covering the theater in New York since 1981. A former theater critic for the New York Daily News, he was also a long-time contributor to the Nation, Vanity Fair, the Village Voice and the New York Times. He is also the author of the award-winning Ridiculous! The Theatrical Life and Times of Charles Ludlam, the best-selling Doris Day: The Untold Story of the Girl Next Door, and his most recent biography, Some Enchanted Evenings: The Glittering Life and Times of Mary Martin.

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