I remember a production of "Miss Julie" at the Yale Cabaret (the school-year one, not the summer season) from many years ago. August Strindberg's ever-popular relationship tragedy was done essentially as a staged reading, with a different cast for each performance, script in hand.
When it came time for the scene where the two lovers — well-to-do mistress of the household Julia and the footman Jean — exit the stage to consummate their passion, the person reading the stage directions simply said "Uh, they have sex." I remember being taken aback by the bluntness of that statement, and how it upset Strindberg's delicate dance of a dialogue.
"Mies Julie," a 2012 adaptation of "Miss Julie" by the South African playwright Yaël Farber, playing at the Yale Summer Cabaret through Sunday, July 23, is even more frank about what Julie and Jean (whom Farber renames John) are doing. The copulation is shown onstage. So is another graphic, non-sexual incident late in the play that Strindberg also chose to make happen offstage, leaving it up to the audience's imagination.
While keeping much of the original play's structure and much of the dialogue, Farber has switched the time and place of "Miss Julie" from late 19th-century Sweden to the arid Karoo region of the Eastern Cape province, post-apartheid. She specifies that Julie is a white woman and Jean (now "John") is a black man. She changes the third main character, the servant Christine, from being Jean's wife to being his mother, and adds a fourth, a restless spirit called Ukhokho. The play no longer takes place during a midsummer revel on the estate. Now it's April 27, the Freedom Day holiday.
Director Rory Pelsue and scenic designer Fufan Zhang give "Mies Julie" a dark, claustrophobic environment in which none of the characters ever leaves the stage, while the stains and bad vibes pile up.
Strindberg's "Miss Julie" is a play firmly about classism and, to a lesser degree, sexism. Adding overt racism to the mix is a lot of pressure to put upon a simple tale of two people who lust after each other, then become wildly aware of the social consequences of that desire.
Strindberg's play also has another big distinction. It was written as a defiant work of naturalism, its drama unfurling gradually and realistically. Strindberg wrote a long introduction to "Miss Julie" outlining his theories and methods. Farber undoes a lot of Strindberg's intent, jettisoning a lot of the conversation that lets the play flow and breathe.
To be fair, Strindberg gave up naturalism himself later in his career, in favor of expressionistic dreamscapes such as "The Ghost Sonata." But adding such sensationalism — there are literally buckets of blood in this production — and supernaturalism renders "Miss Julie" wholly unnatural. "Mies Julie" is a hard show to ignore, but its utter lack of subtlety, and the way it undermines the natural desires of its lead characters by overpoliticizing and allegorizing them, is confounding.
"MIES JULIE" by Yaël Farber, based on "Miss Julie" by August Strindberg, plays through July 23 at the Yale Summer Cabaret, 217 Park St., New Haven. Remaining performances are Wednesday and Thursday at 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday at both 7 and 10 p.m. and Sunday at 8 p.m. Tickets are $30, $15 for students. 203-432-1567, summercabaret17.org.