David Roberts, Chief New York Critic, Outer Critics Circle/Drama Desk Member
August Strindberg’s naturalism and themes transfer brilliantly from his “Miss Julie” to Yaël Farber’s adaptation of Strindberg’s classic. Farber’s “Mies Julie” is currently running at Classic Stage Company in repertory with the Conor McPherson’s adaptation of Strindberg’s “The Dance of Death.” Like the 1985 stage version of “Miss Julie” at Cape Town’s Baxter Theatre, Mr. Farber’s 2012 adaptation takes place in South Africa. Shariffa Ali’s electrifying staging replaces Strindberg’s celebration of Midsummer’s Eve with the “restitutions of body and soul” churned up by the Xhosa Freedom Day celebration.
Afrikaans protagonist Mies Julie (Elise Kibler) and Xhosa antagonist John (James Udom), though childhood friends, are from vastly different social orders. Now in their twenties, they are separated by insurmountable divides of class, race, and social status. Unfortunately, they are also “star-crossed” lovers foreshadowing the breakdown of South Africa’s fragile social order and the equally dangerous breakdown of historical social and sexual distinctions. Their extended cat-and-mouse game of alienation and rapprochement defines the dramatic arc of Yaël Farber’s distinctive adaptation. Each knows they must escape the ghosts of their past and the imprisonment of their present. Escaping Ukhokho the specter of one’s ancestry (Vinie Burrows) proves to be a risky business.
James Udom is a monumental John who, when on stage, commands the intricies of Farber’s text to be exposed as he delivers a layered and persuasive performance. Whether he is shining the farm owner’s boots, comforting his mother Christine (a compliant yet hope-filled Patrice Johnson Chevannes), or jockeying for social prominence with Mies Julie, Mr. Udom wastes no movement, no expression, no word as he pays tribute to his complex character. Elise Kibler delivers her performance as Julie with nuanced layers of dominance, sadness, regret, and nagging self-destructiveness. Although her performance lacks Mr. Udom’s sustained intensity, Ms. Kibler provides a Julie that is a worthwhile adversary for John. Under Shariffa Ali’s direction, James Udom, Elise Kibler, and Patrice Johnson Chevannes deliver authentic and believable performances that richly manifest the enduring conflicts of their characters.
Adaptations of Strindberg’s “Miss Julie” have been set in the Old South, the English countryside, and in Cape Town and presented in the genres of stage, ballet, opera, film, and television. These adaptations highlight Strindberg’s themes of the fragility of social orders and the inevitable failure of sexual and social differences, including the tensions between the Roman Catholic Irish and Anglo-Irish Protestant communities. However, none have been as powerful as the Yaël Farber retelling set on Freedom Day 2012 in the farmhouse kitchen in Eastern Cape – Karoo, South Africa.
Issues of race, gender, power, privilege, and hope cascade across David L. Arsenault’s expansive set and are ultimately consummated on the kitchen farm table set center stage where Julie’s self-destructive personality and John’s deep sadness collide in an explosive scene where raw sexual power serves as a rich metaphor for the reversal of roles between Julie and John forcing both to make decisions about future and the sustainability of life as each has known it. In this final scene, a Pandora’s box of tropes – one more exhaustingly powerful than the next – cascade beyond the borders of the stage sustaining the play’s soul-bending catharsis.
As the 2018-2019 theatre season draws to a close, “Mies Julie” is a play to see: its themes counterpoint the struggles for true freedom that continue to beg for resolution.
“Mies Julie” features Elise Kibler as Julie, James Udom as John, Vinie Burrows as Ukhokho, and Patrice Johnson Chevannes as Christine.
The creative team includes David L. Arsenault (Scenic Design), Ntokozo Fuzunina Kunene and Andrew
Moerdyk (Costume Design), Stacey Derosier (Lighting Design), Quentin Chiappetta (Sound Design), and Andrew Orkin (Original Music).
Performances of “Mies Julie” will take place at Classic Stage Company (136 East 13th Street) on the following performance schedule: January 13, 14, 24, 27, and 28, and March 10 at 7:00 p.m. It will be performed 16, and 22, and March 2 and 8 at 8:00 p.m. Matinee performances will take place February 17, and 23, and March 3 and 9 at 2:00 p.m. For further information, visit https://www.classicstage.org/.
Running time is 75 minutes without intermission.
Photo: James Udom and Elise Kibler in “Mies Julie.” Credit: Joan Marcus.