Off-Broadway Theater Review: MIES JULIE (St. Ann’s Warehouse)

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by Sarah Taylor Ellis on November 17, 2012

in Theater-New York

HOT AUGUST STRINDBERG NIGHT

St. Ann’s Warehouse inaugurates its new space with an often gripping production of Mies Julie, adapted to post-apartheid South Africa. A dense fog sweeps over the earthen, stone-tiled kitchen of an old estate in the Eastern Cape Karoo. These weathered quarters (designed by Patrick Curtis) provide the heated setting for a physical encounter of master and slave, black and white, male and female, only 18 years after Nelson Mandela’s election.

Sarah Taylor Ellis’ Stage and Cinema Off-Broadway Review of MIES JULIE at St. Ann’s Warehouse

While Strindberg’s original play centers on a rich and idle woman who falls into an affair with her father’s footman, Yaël Farber’s compelling adaptation addresses questions of ownership in and through the body in South Africa. The complex intertwining of class, race, and desire comes to a head in the sexual relationship between a black farm laborer named John (Bongile Mantsai) and his white master’s daughter Julie (Hilda Cronje), both of whom have been raised by John’s mother Christine (Thoko Ntshinga).

The strength of Farber’s adaptation and direction is its unabashed physicality. The production is visceral and often uncomfortable, featuring nudity, graphic sexuality and violence – although never gratuitously.

Sarah Taylor Ellis’ Stage and Cinema Off-Broadway Review of MIES JULIE at St. Ann’s Warehouse

Cronje owns the space as Mies Julie, lounging at the table provocatively with her long legs elegantly draped across the tabletop. “Niemand sal aan my raak nie. (No one will touch me.) My pa will shoot the black man in the head that puts his hands on me. Then he’ll shoot me. Told me that once when I was little. That was my bedtime story,” Julie teases John, who worries about taking a seat at the table, let along sharing a glass of wine with the salacious lady. By the midpoint of the show, power dynamics have shifted; Mantsai’s John physically dominates Mies Julie, raping her atop that very table – although this sexual encounter is layered with a forbidden mutual desire. This interracial intimate act has shocking repercussions far beyond the bounds of the personal.

Sarah Taylor Ellis’ Stage and Cinema Off-Broadway Review of MIES JULIE at St. Ann’s Warehouse

A psychological understanding of the play frequently falters – yet the physical and political understanding of the play is paramount. This battle for the body and for the land is enhanced by a tense soundscape of relentless white noise (composed by Daniel Pencer and Matthew Pencer) that incorporates the swift scrubbing of boots, the measured pouring of a bucket of blood, and – most hauntingly of all – the drone of an other-worldly ancestor (Tandiwe Nofirst Lungisa), who meanders the space singing. It is this ancestor who makes Mies Julie particularly layered and palimpsestic, grappling with political issues that extend through centuries in South Africa and have yet to be fully resolved.

Sarah Taylor Ellis’ Stage and Cinema Off-Broadway Review of MIES JULIE at St. Ann’s Warehouse

photos by Pavel Antonov

Mies Julie
Baxter Theatre Centre at St. Ann’s Warehouse
ends on December 16, 2012
for tickets, call 718-254-8779 or visit St. Ann’s

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