At one crucial point in “Mies Julie,” Yaël Farber’s explosive and adept South African adaptation of August Strindberg’s throbbing naturalistic classic from 1888, now firing up the Victory Gardens Theater, the title character pulls out her trump card.
We’re in the Karoo, the remote, semi-desert region of South Africa. The valet Jean has become John, a farm laborer. Julie is the entitled daughter of John’s boss, an Afrikaner landowner. It’s Freedom Day, the annual commemoration of the first post-Apartheid elections in 1994. John and Julie grew up together, long have been attracted to each other, and now are drinking and teasing and playing games of power and subordination, mirroring the ones of their youth. They’ve just made torrid love on the kitchen table, if that’s the word. Suddenly, Julie sees a future with John.
And then Julie says it: If he leaves, she’ll claim rape. After all, she says, she is full of his seed. She observes with certitude that, if she makes that claim, he likely will be in prison by nightfall. This is not Apartheid South Africa, but both parties are aware that by no means everything has changed.
At that point at Friday night’s packed opening of director Dexter Bullard’s production, an audience member right behind me hurled an insult at Julie at such volume and with such emotional fury that my head whipped right around involuntarily.
Heather Chrisler — an utterly fearless Chicago actress capable of extraordinarily deep dives into driven characters — noted what had transpired for a second, and used it like kerosene to double down, hard. Jalen Gilbert, who plays Jean as a man caught up in a erotic fever that he feels surely will lead to his own destruction, ingested the tension in the room to gulp, swallow and, it seemed, nearly blow out his own insides on the stage.
This is a very tense piece from the get-go. At that moment, it was hard to think of another show in Chicago where the momentary stakes felt higher, or where anyone in the audience had demonstrated such absolute and clearly all-consuming belief in the fictional moment.
If the ghost of Strindberg had been in the Biograph Theatre, he surely would have approved. Farber, a writer who embraces complexity of point of view, would have immediately understood; we do not see nearly enough of her work. God, it’s good.
Although many in the audience Friday clearly never had seen the play before, “Miss Julie” was a shocker even in 1888: Julie begins by asking her servant Christine (she’s become Jean’s mother in this version and is played here by Celeste Williams) to abort her dog’s pregnancy. This isn’t Chekhov. Julie can’t be bothered with subtext. Chrisler and Bullard understand this clearly.
Those are the kinds of choices she makes, and she always gets what she wants.
John, who strangles a bird before our eyes, is clearly capable of similarly impassioned cruelty, when sufficiently provoked — Gilbert is roaring down all the right tracks there, he could just go further when it comes to John’s wanting what he knows he cannot have. It’s about unlocking sexual need and letting it co-exist with fear.
But this is hardly an equal dance of sex and death.
In Strindberg’s Sweden, the divider was class. In South Africa, as is easy translated to the United States, it’s the economic and social history of racial oppression. The historic white fear of interracial sexual relations is omnipresent in the history of both nations; “Mies Julie” is arguing that furious paranoia has fueled sexual congress underpinned by desire and fear, even as it has worked against human love. It has taken strength to survive.
Ergo, this is a show that took guts to stage, and Bullard’s production, which is kinetic from the moment Julie strides into the kitchen, throwing herself off the walls she sees in her head, takes the kinds of risk that you have to be willing to endure to step into this particular furnace in this moment.
Most of the big, English-speaking theater cities saw Farber’s own touring production from Cape Town’s Baxter Theatre (it played St. Anne’s Warehouse to much acclaim in Brooklyn, New York, in 2012). With the help of the performer-composer T. Ayo Alston, Bullard has created a fine, homegrown work in profound conversation.
The work is barely 75 minutes. That’s long enough to be with these all-consuming characters, and to vicariously experience their eroticized choices from which there can be no escape. But the reason to suffer and feel alongside this ill-fated pair as they pace around Kurtis Boetcher’s set, Raquel Adorno’s revealing costumes signaling their ultimate fates, is to just a little better understand both the overwhelming force of desire, and its constant collision with inequality and hate.
Review: “Mies Julie” (4 stars)
When: Through June 24
Where: Victory Gardens Theater, 2433 N. Lincoln Ave.
Running time: 1 hour, 15 minutes
Tickets: $15-$60 at 773-871-3000 and www.victorygardens.org
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