The weight of history presses down inexorably on the two protagonists in "Mies Julie,'' as omnipresent and inescapable as the mist that drifts across the Paramount Center Mainstage.
By the end of this intensely kinetic drama, it's hard to quarrel with an assertion by John — a black worker who has become entangled with Miss Julie, the white daughter of the farm estate owner for whom John is employed — that "love is not possible in this mess.''
In her mostly taut, intermittently wobbly adaptation of August Strindberg's "Miss Julie,'' Yaël Farber has transposed the action from 19th-century Sweden to post-apartheid South Africa. To Strindberg's themes of class and sex and power Farber has added or enhanced the elements of race, land ownership, motherhood, and nationhood. (Strindberg's treatment of sex was shocking in 1888, but Farber considerably ups the ante in that department, 21st-century style.)
Directed by Farber, "Mies Julie'' unfolds at a Strindbergian fever pitch for much of its 90 minutes, with fearless, can't-tear-your-eyes-away-from-them performances by Bongile Mantsai as John and Hilda Cronje as Julie. The deep-voiced Cronje endows Julie with a hypnotic blend of sensuality, command, contempt, and raw need, while Mantsai builds skillfully and unflinchingly from John's early tentativeness to the explosive release of emotions that have clearly been bottled up in the character for a long time.
There's a restless physicality to both portrayals. A birdcage hangs upstage (the set design is by Patrick Curtis), and the farmhouse kitchen where "Mies Julie'' takes place might as well be a cage, given the way John and Julie remain in constant, circling movement, sizing each other up as if they're seeing each other for the first time, even though they've known each other since childhood.
In the world of "Mies Julie,'' and in the nation for which that kitchen is a kind of proxy, the past is always there in the present, ticking away. Augmenting that sensation is the reverberant soundscape thrumming just beneath the action, and the presence of an ancestral figure, played by Tandiwe Nofirst Lungisa, who watches silently from the periphery.
One of Farber's most astute moves in adapting Strindberg was to change the character of the cook from John's fiancée to his mother, portrayed by Thoko Ntshinga (John was called Jean in "Miss Julie"). The change opens up a rich and resonant vein of complication in the relationship between John and Julie: He deeply resents the fact that his mother had to devote so much time during his childhood to caring for the young Julie, whose own troubled mother committed suicide.
The play takes place in 2012, two decades after the end of apartheid. More specifically, it is Freedom Day, the commemoration of the first election in South Africa that was open to all citizens regardless of race, resulting in the election of Nelson Mandela to the presidency.
Yet even as the sounds of celebration can be heard offstage, the volatile interactions between John and Julie make clear that apartheid's poison lingers on, with its power to distort and destroy. Underscoring John's subservient position and a wider system of social injustice, we see him polishing his employer's boots while two rows of other boots await cleaning nearby. Early on in the play Julie imperiously demands that he go dancing with her; later, she orders him to kiss her foot.
But the power dynamic shifts back and forth. There's a fierceness to their mutual attraction that is matched only by an equivalent need to verbally lacerate each other once the demands of lust have been satisfied. Eventually, John proves no less capable of cruelty — and maybe more — than Julie is.
A seriousness of purpose on Farber's part is evident throughout, but she resorts to some gratuitously pulpy touches during the scenes of erotic combat between the two that are straight out of a bad romance novel and that weaken the character of Julie. At certain points the dialogue veers toward theme-telegraphy. (Was it really necessary to have John say, early in the play, "A storm is coming to this farm.''?) I wish, too, that Farber had moved more forcefully to eradicate traces of Strindberg's misogyny from her adaptation. Then and now, it's problematic to present a woman rather than a man as the face of oppression.
But Farber's artistry is such that she communicates a broader and deeper point: that both Julie and John are trapped in a deadly and pitiless cycle of brutality, unable either to forget or escape old wounds. All these two seem ultimately able to do is deliver new ones.
Don Aucoin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.