Where: Victory Gardens Theater, 2433 N. Lincoln Ave.
When: through June 24
By ANNE SPISELMAN
Yaël Farber’s “Mies Julie” is called an adaptation of August Strindberg’s “Miss Julie,” but the most interesting thing about the South African playwright’s 70-minute one act is how much the alterations she makes to the 1888 original change the scope, themes, and impact. While the Swedish drama is all about social class and a sexual power struggle, Farber adds race, ancestry, issues of land ownership, and the meaning of freedom to the heady mix.
Her play is set in the kitchen on a remote rural farm in arid Karoo in 2012, the year it premiered. Her stand-in for Strindberg’s Midsummer’s Eve is April 27, the 18th annual Freedom Day honoring the anniversary of the first open election in 1994, when the anti-apartheid African National Congress took control of the government, though this is something you’ll have to read the program flyer to find out if you’re not up on South African history. And the context is all-important, because one legacy of apartheid is the persistence of racism the play illuminates.
As in “Miss Julie,” Mies Julie (Heather Chrisler) is the daughter of the landowner, who is away but expected back soon. Her engagement was recently broken off and, drunk and reckless, she leaves the celebration and throws herself at John (Jalen Gilbert), her father’s favorite servant. Besides the fact that Julie is Afrikaans and John is black, the main difference is that Christine (Celeste Williams), the cook, is not John’s fiancé; she’s his mother. Not only that, she also raised Mies Julie, whose biological mother was indifferent to her, and Julie and John have been playmates since childhood.
Their love-hate relationship is more complicated than Strindberg’s misogynistic dance of dominance and submission with Jean as the cultured social-climbing valet who can’t quite escape his servitude, and Julie as the half-woman man-hater incapable of making decisions for herself. Here, at least under Dexter Bullard’s direction, John seems to have genuine feelings for Mies Julie and to be protective of her, even as their tug-of-war and screaming matches escalate. At the same time, he deeply resents her for many reasons including Christine’s preference for her, and once goaded to unleash his passion, there’s no letting up. The only moment of calm in the storm is their post-coital nap curled together on the kitchen table before the explosion of insults and invective leading to the violent finale.
Unlike in “Miss Julie,” the sex and violence take place on stage, and Bullard pulls no punches, with the help of intimacy and violence choreographer Kristina Fluty. On the other hand, the build-up to the actual coupling lacks the slow-burn erotic charge. Chrisler’s Mies Julie was certainly sexy enough in her low-cut high-slit maxi dress (costumes by Raquel Adorno), but Gilbert’s John betrayed an ambivalence, his desire perhaps tempered by fear and other emotions.
In the aftermath, amid aborted unrealistic plans to go off somewhere and open a hotel, the arguments coalesce around who has a right to the farm. John says the land—in fact, the whole country—was stolen from his ancestors by the Afrikaners and sees the seed he may have planted in Julie as his way to get back what’s rightfully his. She counters that her people also have been there for generations and that she’ll die before she has his child.
For resigned, religious Christine, beautifully embodied by Williams, the bones of her Xhosa ancestors call to her from the roots of the tree over which the kitchen was built, so much so that she’s torn up some of the red floor tiles to get to them. Kurtis Boetcher’s stunning scenic design, with the roots surrealistically emerging from under the naturalistic kitchen captures the dichotomy perfectly, and Diane D. Fairchild’s lighting design adds an element of strangeness to everything from the large ceiling fan circulating overhead to a rocky wasteland receding in the background.
We get the sense that these ancestors keep Christine on the farm, and their ghosts—at least that of her grandmother Ukhokho (T. Ayo Alston)–haunt the action. Wandering in and out in white face, Alston sings and plays her compositions on the kalimba, artfully amplified by sound designer Stephen Ptacek. This melancholy music stuck with me more than the stronger, more strident sequences.
“Mies Julie” tends to get a little didactic, even preachy, and there are some details picked up from Strindberg that don’t quite fit these characters. Also, John’s fate in the end isn’t quite clear. Nor, really, is the point Farber is trying to make beyond the fact that the situation is impossible. However, this is a thought-provoking take on a classic, and the acting is memorable.