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A White-Hot Reworking: Mies Julie at St. Ann’s Warehouse

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A White-Hot Reworking: <em>Mies Julie</em> at St. Ann’s Warehouse

It takes some nerve for a playwright to adapt a fellow playwright’s work, especially since most reworkings come a cropper. Recently, Patrick Marber’s After Miss Julie transplanted August Strindberg’s one-act to post-war Britain. Its 2005 Broadway production, starring Sienna Miller and Jonny Lee Miller, was a cold affair that fell flat with critics and audiences. Now writer-director Yael Farber has gone back to the same Swedish well and come up with Mies Julie, which in any language would be a white-hot success.

A beautiful young man and woman hurl themselves at a wall, a table, and each other with abandon and a vengeance. There’s an evocative live score and a light fog—a feast for the senses that sets the pulse racing. Concurrently, political points give food for thought. Farber colonizes Strindberg’s original, transforming the classic about class into an exposé of South Africa’s post-apartheid era. Julie is white and John is black. The basic dynamic remains. In the kitchen of a vast manor, Julie, the daughter of the estate’s owner, flirts with John, her father’s favorite valet. The power seesaws. John’s got the physical strength to dominate her. Julie’s got social standing on her side. It doesn’t end happily.

Patrick Curtis’s set, seen as one enters the theater, gives a reliable clue to the guiding principal behind Farber’s changes. It’s a kitchen, per usual, but the tiled floor has been built around a tree stump. Its roots have continued to rise, turning the surrounding tiles into rubble. We see from the start that Julie may have the house, but John’s got the land on his side.

Farber’s textual changes add more daunting obstacles for the two. Julie’s always had to battle her family ties, but now must contend with his if she’s to convince him to run off with her. Christine the cook, who’d originally been John’s fiancée, is his mother in this version. Fellow servants, whose stage time had been spent briefly celebrating the midsummer night, have been replaced by John’s ancestor who roams the premises singing and playing indigenous music. Now set on Freedom Day, Mies Julie explores the degree to which contemporary South Africa is haunted by apartheid. The homestead, still bearing its Dutch colonial name, is owned by heirs of the original usurpers and worked on by descendants of the dispossessed. Farber brings compelling new specifics to the same Strindberg question: To what degree are these two free to create a future for themselves separately and together?

The live score places us in a time continuum. The remarkable Tandiwe Nofirst Lungisa, as the ancestor, conjures the pull of the past. Brothers Daniel and Matthew Pencer, as composers and performers, sit just off the raised kitchen area and provide minimalist ambience via saxophone and laptop.

The figurative elements of the set, Lungisa’s unnoticed wanderings, and the nonstop score signal the adaptation’s other seismic shift. The original’s naturalism has been replaced by overt theatricality. During the opening section, Julie and John’s movement is highly choreographed. The stylization gives some elbow room to balance the political with the psychosexual, the new text with the old, the timely with the timeless. It also establishes some boundaries for the fairly graphic intercourse, which no longer takes place off stage. Not since the film remake of The Postman Always Rings Twice has a kitchen table seen more action.

The ritualized nature of the staging allows for a modicum of modesty within the grinding and the brazenly bared breasts and buttocks. It gives Hilda Cronje and Bongile Mantsai, as Julie and John, a safety net for their hire-wire acts of extreme emotionality, sexuality, and brutality. Perhaps it provides a smidge too much safety. The duo commits themselves fully in body and voice; Cronje in particular proves astoundingly supple, riding the ebb and flow of Julie’s fluctuating desires.

But if the accomplished production didn’t swaddle them in music and deliberate staging, she might feel exposed enough to go just a bit farther, revealing a final layer of raw soul. At least the night I attended, Cronje’s performance—and the production as a whole—remained tantalizingly shy of greatness. Nonetheless, the level of expertise and passion on display makes this Mies Julie unmissable.

Mies Julie runs at St. Ann’s Warehouse through December 16.