Hilda Cronje and Bongile Mantsai in “Mies Julie”. Photo by Pavel Antonov
St. Ann’s Warehouse has carved out a solid niche for itself by bringing modest-sized, impeccably conceived international theater productions to Brooklyn. After losing their home on Water Street in DUMBO and weathering the ups and downs of the Tobacco Warehouse redevelopment debacle, it was reassuring for me to step into their new space at 29 Jay Street and see the familiar black curtains, risers, and chairs—St. Ann’s survives, relocation and Hurricane Sandy and all!
St. Ann’s opening production for the season is a provocative one: Mies Julie, imported from the Baxter Theatre Centre in Cape Town, transposes Swedish playwright August Strindberg’s 19th century classic, Miss Julie, to present-day, post-apartheid South Africa (now playing through December 16, tickets here>).
Set in a farming community in the Eastern Cape on Freedom Day, Mies Julie is a steamy, freighted encounter between Julie (Hilda Cronje), the daughter of a white landowner, and John (Bongile Mantsai), her father’s favorite hired hand. As they careen through the uncertainties of their own relationship, they filter their experiences through a prism dominated by race and class, with questions of justice, land ownership, and restitution looming large.
Written and directed by Yael Farber, Mies Julie certainly strives to generate some of the shock that the original must have had in its time: everything alluded to in Strindberg’s text, from sex to suicide, happens in full view of the audience in this version. This is one of the problems with the play—it goes from smoldering innuendos to kitchen table sex to suicide, leaving little to the imagination, all within the span of 90 minutes. It doesn’t help that the production relies on enough fake blood to do Hollywood proud.
In terms of weaving a compelling narrative arc, Mies Julie stumbles under the substantial weight of the issues—social, political, economic, racial, gender—it carries. The stakes have been upped by setting the play in the present and adding race to the divide between Julie and John, but despite the histrionics enacted onstage, the characters aren’t given enough depth to transcend a two dimensional depiction. It’s hard to locate genuine emotion through the symbolism, and while the premise of this adaptation is a tantalizing one, its execution veers towards the bombastic.