BWW Review: Yael Farber Sets A Strindberg Classic in Post-Apartheid South Africa in MIES JULIE
You can pass laws, spread the wealth and educate the masses all you want, but perhaps the quickest way to dissolve the barriers between established classes is simply through giving in to raw passion.
That might have been the message audiences would haven taken away with them when Swedish champion of naturalism, August Strindberg's scandalous 1888 drama MISS JULIE, was first presented. Viewers today must more-or-less cast themselves as the playwright's contemporaries in order to understand the shocking nature of the character-driven piece depicting the flirtatious power-playing between a privileged young woman and man deemed to be beneath her station.
As dramatized by Strindberg, the title character, the daughter of a count, escapes the humdrum guests of her family's Midsummer's Eve celebration for a hot time in the kitchen with her father's self-educated and ambitious valet, all in front of his devoutly religious fiancé, the cook.
In Yael Farber's 2012 adaptation, titled Mies Julie, which is receiving a tense and sizzling Classic Stage Company production directed by Shariffa Ali, the setting is moved to the Karoo of South Africa on the 18th Anniversary of Freedom Day, commemorating the time in April of 1994 when the country held its first post-apartheid elections.
The kitchen setting remains, but now it's located in the fine home of a wealthy Afrikaans landowner. Before the play begins, early arrivals will see Christine, the elderly Xhosa housekeeper on her hands and knees, scrubbing the stone floor as she has done for decades. The role is played with a beautiful mixture of weariness and strength by Patrice Johnson Chevannes.
Rather than being a fiancé, Christine is now not only the devout mother of laborer John (sturdy and charismatic James Udon), but she also raised the landowner's daughter, Julie (playfully sultry Elise Kibler), who her son has had a crush on since they were kids.
On this sweltering evening, passions and social politics meet nose to nose as the lithe and barefoot Julie amuses herself with John's attempts to resist her charms. Despite the day's celebration of freedom, social norms do not change so quickly, and this is dangerous territory for both of them.
Their rough, but consensual, sexual encounter, staged with striking realism by fight and intimacy directors Alicia Rodis and Claire Warden, carries the same symbolism that the source's author conveyed less graphically in the 19th Century, though with the added layer brought on by the pair's racial divide. A spectral character played by Vinie Burrows brings home the point that while their nation heads towards a new future, it also sees a changed view of its past.