At the Victory Gardens Theater
By Dan Zeff
Chicago – “Mies Julie” at the Victory Gardens Theater is a modern adaptation of August Strindberg’s classic 1888 drama “Miss Julie.” Playwright Yael Farber has transposed the setting from late 19th century Norway to her native South Africa on one fateful night in 2012.
“Mies Julie” opened in England six years ago and became an international success, winning praise for its contemporary take on that country’s long history of conflict between its native black population and white colonials from Europe. The Victory Gardens production runs for 70 minutes in a single act. The play is drenched in audience-gripping passion and eroticism and violence, but I suspect its themes will connect more with South African oriented viewers than American spectators, though its extended sex scene should connect with all viewers.
“Mies Julie,” like the Strindberg original, takes place in the kitchen of an estate, in Farber’s case, in a remote desert area of South Africa. The estate is owned by a white master who is never seen. Only three characters appear on the stage, the owner’s daughter Julie, a native laborer named John, and John’s mother, a servant named Christine (transposed by Farber from John’s fiancé Kristin in “Miss Julie”). Periodically a ghostly black woman in white face makeup drifts through the action, representing John’s ancestors.
The “Mies” before Julie’s name is significant. Unlike the more common “Miss” in modern English usage, in South Africa it is attached to an upper class woman, corresponding perhaps to a Lady Julie, underscoring the social gulf between Julie and the servant class John and Christine.
Julie is a young woman, discontented, edgy, and sensual. Her engagement to be married has recently been broken and she is at loose ends. She and John have known each other since childhood and their friendship suddenly explodes into a scene of sexual ferocity that scorches the stage even by today’s liberal theatrical standards. The rest of the time is mostly spent in the two characters fiercely debated their respective places in South African society, Julie from the lofty view of the white ruling class and John from the oppressed servant class.
Race plays a major role in the play, but an American audience is conditioned to view race from our own historical perspective of Africans forcefully brought to America to be turned into oppressed slaves. But in “Mies Julie” it is the white population comes late as colonists, usurping the land as invading outsiders. The kitchen floor covers the burial ground of generations of natives, a daily reminder to John and Christine of what has been taken from them. But Julie argues back, claiming her legitimacy to white possession of South Africa through generations of entitling settlement.
Symbolically the play’s action unfolds during a holiday celebrating the end of apartheid in South Africa 18 years previously. But the embittered John states “Welcome to the new South Africa, where miracles leave us exactly as we began.” John symbolizes those native South Africans whose anger at being denied the right to live freely in their own country is ready to spill over into militancy. In apparent sympathy with John, Julie demands that they run away together to start a new life elsewhere in the country, but John realizes a lack of political power and money dooms him to life as a servant polishing his master’s boots. The tensions mount, as in the Strindberg drama, to Julie’s destruction, though in Farber’s more horrific on-stage climax.
What makes the play worth seeing at the Victory Gardens is a pair of towering performances by Heather Chrisler as Julie and Jalen Gilbert as John. Their scenes reach incendiary levels of passion, both verbal and physical. Chrisler delivers a fascinating portrayal of a young woman leading an outwardly privileged life who desperately seeks an outlet for her frustrations. She may even be emotional unbalanced through the combination of her isolation in her desert home, the ending of her engagement (even though she may not have loved the man), sexual repression, and psychological scars inflicted by her mother’s suicide years before.
Gilbert’s John wants to recover his people’s land but sees social and economic barricades everywhere. Julie seduces him and sees him as her future mate in a new and better life, but John recognizes the realities of how his society operates. History and race have him by the throat and he can only snarl in helpless rage.
Celeste Williams is splendid as the third speaking character in the play. As Christine she is a member of an older generation, taking solace and strength from the church, doing her her chores with a weary sense of inevitability. Christine’s love of the land and her people are just as urgent as her son’s but she knows how the world works. T. Ayo Alston plays the spirit-like ancestral figure whose place in the story I never got a handle on.
My major problem with “Mies Julie,” at least at the Victory Gardens, is that the explosion of passion between Julie and John lacks sufficient dramatic preparation. The actors certainly throw themselves into their big scene of sexual possession, but given the configuration of South African society such a physical connect seems improbable to the point of fantasy. We learn nothing of a shared background that would suggest they harbored sexual urges that could erupt into such a sudden consenting sexual frenzy. It was stunning to watch but I didn’t buy into its justification dramatically.
Director Dexter Bullard gets a maximum performance from his small ensemble but he may have missed an opportunity to raise the emotional temperature of the action. The holiday celebration going on outside the kitchen is too muted. More emphasis on the intoxicating emotional pitch of the revelry could have fueled the credibility of the passions in the kitchen. I also struggled at times with the pungent South African accents. I’m sure both Chrisler and Gilbert spoke with authentic renderings of the dialect of both the white upper class and the native underclass, but I had some problems understanding them.
Kurtis Boetcher designed the realistic kitchen setting. Raquel Adorno designed the costumes, Diane B. Fairchild the lighting, and Stephen Ptacek the sound (which could have aurally enhanced the turbulent holiday celebration offstage). Kristina Fluty is listed as “intimacy and violence choreographer” and did she ever earn that credit!
“Mies Julie” scores points for its intensity and its exploration of challenging problems of power, gender, and the iron grip of history on a society. An interesting discussion could be made of the contrasting racial contexts in South Africa and the United States. The suddenly volcanic coupling between Julie and John, the core of the narrative, doesn’t work for me. But Chrisler and Gilbert sure do give it their all.
The show gets a rating of
“Mies Julie” runs through June 24 at the Victory Gardens Theater, 2433 North Lincoln Avenue. Performances are Tuesday through Friday at 7:30 p.m., Saturday at 3 and 7:30 p.m., and Sunday at 3 p.m. Tickets are $15 to $60. Call 773 871 3000 or visit www.victorygardens.org.
Contact Dan at ZeffDaniel@yahoo.com. June 2018
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