Mies Julie ★★★★
Yaël Farber has found a smart way to spin on Miss Julie, August Strindberg’s first global click. She calls it Mies Julie and sets it in more contemporary South Africa. Making the bold transition, she is able not only to stress the sexual politics of the explosive play but introduce a more profound political perspective. The divide between white owners and black laborers is, if anything, made more fiercely dramatic.
Farber and director Shariffa Ali keep the basic tale intact. The plot still concerns spoiled owner’s daughter Julie (Elise Kibler) retreating from her own party to tease and taunt worker John (James Udom) in the kitchen. All the same, Farber feels free to take liberties with Strindberg’s proceedings. She turns the 35-year-old cook and Jean’s intended, Christine, into John’s church-going mom (Patricia Johnson), a woman who’s worked on the estate for decades and has much to lose were her son to be caught in any kind of transgression.
Theater-goers eager to suss out traditional Strindberg themes can certainly grab onto his view of female psychology. He surely believes that women’s attitudes towards men is ambivalent at the best of times (see the Dance of Death review below for corroboration.) Possibly letting himself off that psychiatric hook, he doesn’t quite see men as holding an equally disparaging view of women.
In both Miss Julie and Mies Julie, Jean/John has had his eye on the heiress but knows he also needs to recognize his inferior societal status. Unfortunately, he’s eventually unable to resist when she ceases her non-coitus-interruptus tempting and gives herself to him. The repercussions doom her and him—even more drastically than Strindberg, as revised by Farber, has it.
The Mies Julie revelations aren’t confined to Farber’s free hand. Director Ali’s actors are superb. Kibler’s entrance is as startling as these things get. Lithe with shoulder-length black hair. wearing a commonplace yet provocative red sundress, and bare-footed, Kibler arrives to lie on the kitchen table and flex her legs. She’s a baby doll ripe for the taking, but John, who keeps polishing boots, gets what she’s after but isn’t initially taken in by it. (He shines boots, but instead of kissing them—also see below—he must eventually kiss Julie’s bare foot.) Yes, Julie throws herself at men but not merely for sexual desire. Often, she’s only teasing them so she can then cruelly dismiss them
Time comes, though, in Udom’s commanding performance, when John takes Mies Julie in more ways than one. As played, It may be that nothing sexier than these roughly consensual Julie-John scenes has been glimpsed on Manhattan stages since Natasha Richardson and Liam Neeson fell for each other in the 1993 revival of Eugene O’Neill’s Anna Christie.
Johnson’s Christine—she can be understood as Farber’s chance to create a new Strindberg character—is also strong. First seen singing to herself while scrubbing the floor of David L. Arsenault’s modest kitchen, Johnson eventually becomes the embodiment of dignity. She’s all the more tragic for what befalls her. The venerable Vinie Burrows appears a few times as a non-speaking spectral figure.
When a playwright decides to fiddle with well-loved plays, it’s often a problem, but here’s a rare example of a truly authoritative spin.
The Dance of Death ★★
Thinking about what drove August Strindberg to shake out The Dance of Death in 1900, I decided what it had to be: spite. The unrelenting battle of the sexes—okay, relenting at sparse intervals—in which a military man and his former actress wife figuratively bite each other’s heads off (and get close to doing as much literally), can come across as Strindberg’s getting back at Siri von Essen. She was his first wife, an actress who debuted Strindberg’s reputation-making Miss Julie (see above).
Acting spitefully towards von Essen—it’s apparently how the often-depressed playwright experienced their fateful union—also inevitably has the effect of being spiteful towards audiences. Undoubtedly, the play with its “naturalistic” tone shocked spectators in 1900 who were just becoming adjusted to Henrik Ibsen’s ground-breaking works. The roiling, boiling action depicted husband-wife contretemps that patrons hadn’t previously encountered on the stage but perhaps had endured at home.
By 2019, however, the way Edgar (Richard Topol)—repeatedly pulling his sword from its sheath—and Alice (Cassie Beck)—prone to demand that men kiss her boot—go at each other borders so closely on the comic exaggeration that it too often crosses over. One Strindberg line proclaims something about hell being forged by love and hate. Deep, huh? Deeply shallow. (This, by the way, is a Conor McPherson translation.)
Alice and Edgar, thinking to keep things placid, try games of cards, but suddenly they’re berating each other, then they’re quieting down before tossing blows again. On it goes. Ostracized for their behavior by the other inhabitants of the (symbolically) remote island where they dwell—and thereby missing a loud shindig taking place nearby—they claim only one friend, the visiting Kurt (Christopher Innvar). He, a former Alice lover, gets caught up, too, in the knock-down-drag-out-pick-up-hug-kiss-my-boot-kiss-my-mouth proceedings. (Incidentally, this Dance of Death has this program credit: Fight and Intimacy Direction Alicia Rodis and Claire Warden. That begs the question: Are directors no longer able to organize on-stage intimacy?)
Although director Victoria Clark, continuing a transition from full-time performing, may see humor here, she doesn’t pursue it. But who would blame her for trying to give Strindberg what he wants, even though it means the audience is bombarded with sturm und drang for just about two hours. How many times do assaulted viewers want to see Edgar and Alice spew verbal and physical venom at each other only to reconcile, et cetera? Pulling Kurt into the spiteful vortex only exacerbates things
In the circumstances, what can actors do? When Ian McKellen and Helen Mirren appeared as Edgar and Alice on Broadway in 2001 (Richard Greenberg’s translation), they looked to be compensating for the histrionic writing by offering can-you-top-this histrionic acting. Perhaps Topol, Beck and Innvar can be thanked—Clark, too—for not following that example. But what’s gained? Maybe the actors earn points for stamina in this Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? precursor, but that’s about it.
Maybe next time, an adventurous director might try mounting the classic(?) play as an out-and-out laff fest.
Mies Julie and The Dance of Death opened February 10, 2019, at the Classic Stage Company, performed in rep, and run through March 10. Tickets and information: classicstage.org