From start to finish in “Julia,” a multimedia adaptation of August Strindberg’s “Miss Julie,” the camera is an ever-present and deliberately intrusive force, a character with no lines but pronounced impact.
As a child, Julia implores her (unseen) father to stop filming her while she is outdoors. He ignores her request. Years later, when Julia is aggressively flirting with Jelson, the driver for her wealthy family, she steals a glance at the camera operator (Paulo Camacho) standing onstage and warns: “We’re not alone.” Still later, as Jelson summarily dispatches Julia’s songbird, she angrily demands of the cameraman: “How can you keep shooting this?” He keeps shooting.
For those of us in the audience, all this teaming of observer and observed keeps the eye mighty busy. The resulting fragmentation of perspective is the most successful aspect of “Julia,” a hybrid of theater and film that’s being presented online by ArtsEmerson.
Strindberg’s 1888 drama has been adapted, directed, and designed by Brazilian filmmaker, author, and theater director Christiane Jatahy, who has transposed “Miss Julie” to contemporary Brazil. To the play’s dynamics of gender, class, and power, Jatahy adds the element of race. Julia (Julia Bernat) is white; Jelson (Rodrigo de Odé), whom she seduces and then belittles, is Black.
I found “Julia” to be less nuanced and ultimately less effective than another contemporary reworking of “Miss Julie” that also made race central to the dramatic equation: Yael Farber’s 2012 “Mies Julie,” set in a post-apartheid South Africa.
When “Mies Julie” was presented by ArtsEmerson at the Paramount Center in 2013, you constantly felt the weight of history pressing down on the duo at the center of the play, the white daughter of an estate owner and her father’s Black employee. For the most part, “Julia” lacks that kind of sustained power, that suffocating atmosphere of two people trapped in different ways by an unjust system, partly because Jatahy did not lavish as much care on her script as on her innovative visual concepts.
While there are moments when questions of racial, social, and economic disparity do come starkly to the fore, and Julia and Jelson do seem at those moments to embody something larger than themselves, their ferocious verbal battles often register as not much more than the spite of two people who at first desire, then come to despise, each other. (Note: “Julia” features nudity and an extended sex scene. ArtsEmerson’s advisory says it’s not recommended for those under 18.)
Inevitably, presenting “Julia” online gives the production an extra layer of distance that does not always work to its advantage. But it doesn’t undo “Julia,” either. What ArtsEmerson is streaming is a live-capture performance, complete with fourth-wall-breaking remarks to the audience by the actors. “Julia” blurs the line between reality and performance and calls attention to the process of its own creation when, for instance, a voice offstage calls “Action!” or “Cut!” As they have it out, Bernat and de Odé are periodically flanked by large screen images of themselves.
But the stakes of their showdown seldom feel all that high, and as malice pours out of Julia in a torrent, Strindberg’s notorious misogyny lingers over the production, a problem that Jatahy, for all her innovative technique, is unable to solve.
Based on August Strindberg’s “Miss Julie.” Directed, adapted, and designed by Christiane Jatahy. Presented by ArtsEmerson. Streaming on-demand through Feb. 22. Tickets are “pick your price.” At www.ArtsEmerson.org or 617-824-8400. Contains nudity and sexual situations. Not recommended for those under 18.