Mies Julie Based on the play Miss Julie by August Strindberg
Written and directed by Yael Farber
Shakespeare Theatre Company at the Lansburgh Theatre to Nov. 24
In two plays, sex, power, and race mingle beneath the sheets.

Simple Tryst of Fate: A sexual encounter whips up some heavy themes.

It’s two weeks late, but the Shakespeare Theatre Company has settled on its Halloween costume: Sexy August Strindberg.

Mies Julie, a South African update of Strindberg’s 19th century tragedy Miss Julie that hit big at last year’s Edinburgh Fringe Festival, amps up the torrid boot-knocking merely suggested in the once-shocking original to such a feverish degree that Bondage, Pinky Swear Productions’ currently running one-act set in an S&M parlor, can’t help but feel a little tame by comparison. Mies Julie is a lavish import—a co-production of the University of Cape Town and the South African State Theatre—occupying the Shakespeare Theatre’s posh Lansburgh space, while Bondage is a more punk-rock affair from scrappy locals at the recently reopened Anacostia Playhouse. But comparing the two is useful: Both plays use the sexual brinksmanship between an interracial couple as a means of discussing race, class, and who, if anyone, can claim to belong in the arid lands in which they’re set (Karoo, South Africa, and Encino, Calif., respectively). And while both are kinkier than a Davies family reunion, neither satisfies completely. Though I suppose that depends, like so much else in life, on what you’re into.

Miss Julie arrived in 1888, but it’s the Mary Lambert–directed video for Madonna’s “Like a Prayer” 100 years later that appears to have been Mies Julie writer-director Yael Farber’s true inspiration. The program credits three people with creating the amber-and-blue lighting scheme. Between the mist-choked stage and the soundscape’s incessant bass rumble of ill portent (performed live by Matthew Pencer and Daniel Pencer), you half expect a locomotive to drag itself onstage in from the wings. There’s a ceiling fan turning lazily overhead and a table that’s going to take a lot of abuse. A rack of boots—the representation, as in the Strindberg, of the absent lord of the manor—is set back at stage right.

But who’s looking at the set? Your eyes can’t help but remain glued to the lithe, powerful, oft-bared bodies of Mies Julie’s two stars, Hilda Cronje in the Afrikaner title role and Bongile Mantsai as John, the Xhosa servant who finally succumbs to her rich-girl advances. Though they each break only briefly and jarringly into dance, we can see from the moment Cronje and Mantsai enter from the back of house that they both know how to move. I wondered why Farber used this considerable asset so sparingly. It’s not as if her tone is naturalistic otherwise. Indeed, it’s rococo, when it isn’t full-on loco.

Farber has set her retelling on Freedom Day, the anniversary of South Africa’s first post-Apartheid election. But no one in this tale seems free: Julie cautions John that her father has promised “a bullet in the head” to any kaffir he catches her with, and one for her, too. She uses the slur repeatedly, often accompanied by slapping and spitting, to try to break down John’s considerable reserve of forbearance; she seems resentful that’s he’s better able to control his lust for her than she is hers for him.

It’s a hostile work environment to say the least, but John is still technically an employee, not a slave. Christine (his mother in this version, not his fiancée; she’s played beautifully by Thoko Ntshinga, and she’s the only character you’ll remember for the things she says) won’t depart the estate because their ancestors are buried on the grounds. John won’t abandon his elderly mother, even when his fickle mies—the word denotes deference—urges him to run away with her, after he’s violently (but consensually) mounted her on the kitchen table. Twice.

Actually, everything feels like it gets reprised in this production—including having John say, “So here we are!”—even though it runs only a trim (and svelte, and sinewy) 90 minutes. Farber signals her seriousness by tacking on a pompous subtitle referencing South African laws that banned black ownership of all but a fraction of the nation’s land and made extramarital sex between blacks and whites illegal. Singer and musician Tandiwe Nofirst Lungisa wanders the stage performing a variety of traditional Xhosa instruments, suggesting the presence of John and Christine’s ancestors.

Farber has said that the struggle for control of the land is a theme she wished to foreground in updating this story. But her emphasis on the sexual tension between Julie and John—and the uncommon, at least around these parts, explicitness of its release—overpowers any consideration of the abstract issue of land rights. It’s a distraction more than it is a genuine provocation.

Also, how can something this drenched in sex remain so weirdly humorless? Julie’s pursuit of John despite the fact that her affections put him in danger doesn’t recall stodgy Strindberg nearly as much as it does the racially charged 1975 exploitation flick Mandingo. That movie featured Ken Norton, the heavyweight boxer who once broke Muhammad Ali’s jaw in the ring, as a slave whose mistress orders him to bed her. Farber talks like she’s aiming higher, but her play’s dominant concerns land below the belt.

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