South African director Yael Farber last came to New York with MoLoRa, her painful, postapartheid adaptation of Electra. There, aided by the virtuoso musicians of the Ngqoko Cultural Group, Farber grafted truth-and-reconciliation onto Greek tragedy’s blood-soaked family tree. In the far less successful Mies Julie, she again cuts a classic (Strindberg’s psychosexual fable of a servant seducing his mistress) to fit her birth country’s concerns. But here, unchecked by MoLoRa’s long choral sequences, Farber’s melodramatic impulses can’t be kept at bay—and they torpedo her work.
Mies Julie falls into the trap of its source text. Strindberg too used sexual domination as a metaphor for sociocultural transaction; he too whipped himself into an adolescent, misogynistic froth over it. Farber’s troubles, though, go further. Not only does she observe a rather simple core geometry (the erotic triangle among black man, white woman and the land they both want), but her adaptation is repetitive and her direction absurd. John (Mantsai) and Julie (Cronje) start the evening grinding against available tables and baring their bits—in the haze of a hardworking fog machine, these two are less subtle than ice-dancers doing the samba. Luckily, we can listen to haunting singer Tandiwe Nofirst Lungisa, or watch Thoko Ntshinga as Christine, John’s overtaxed mother. These two women walk wearily and sit heavily, their stillness a harsher indictment than all the central pair’s acrobatic violence.—Helen Shaw