Veils of dry ice waft over the audience at St. Ann’s Warehouse before this show begins, and when the veils part, the set revealed gives off the impression of punishing heat. Mies Julie (through December 16) is writer/director Yael Farber’s free adaptation of August Strindberg’s Miss Julie set in a kitchen in South Africa, in the Karoo region of the Eastern Cape. Part of the floor downstage has been shattered, and we later learn that Christine (Thoko Ntshinga) took an axe to the tile because her ancestors were buried under it when the white ruling class stole their land. Her son John (Bongile Mantsai) polishes the boots of the master of the house, and he tries not to take notice of Julie (Hilda Cronje), the daughter of the master, who strides around the kitchen and assumes a series of frankly carnal poses that display both her sexual hunger and her utter contempt for sex.
Strindberg’s original is a warhorse of the stage. It has been played all over the world for more than a century, and it was recently on Broadway in a notably half-assed production starring Jonny Lee Miller and Sienna Miller as John and Miss Julie. The thing about Miss Julie is that there needs to be a profound sexual chemistry between the two lead actors; if that isn’t there, the play just doesn't work. Mantsai and Cronje fearlessly approach their roles through movement, using every square inch of the stage as John and Julie wage their war on each other, and this makes for powerful, stark, and elemental stage imagery. Just based on their dance-like movements, Mies Julie is first-class theater staked on the commitment of these two actors, who get about as physical as two people can possibly get on stage; every move they make is loaded with the threat of sexual and emotional eruption.
But Farber’s text doesn’t always support her actors’ daring. When John says to Julie, “You’re playing with fire, Mies Julie,” and Julie replies, “Good thing I’m insured,” it sounds like they’re doing a Carol Burnett film noir parody. Setting the play in modern-day South Africa makes the class struggle between John and Julie come to life in a way that it often has not in recent productions of Strindberg’s play, which can seem like a musty period piece in the wrong hands. But this new dynamic has the effect of sanding away the rough, pretentious edges from John’s character, and the decision to make Christine his mother instead of his fiancée also removes much of the sting from his role so that he feels less like an individual and more like a symbol. Even with these flaws in concept, however, there are several moments of mutual sexual violence between Cronje and Mantsai that I'm not likely soon to forget. This still stands tall as the most brutally effective staging of Miss Julie a New York audience is likely to get for many a season.