If you’ve seen some of the high energy shows Artistic Director Susan Feldman has brought to Brooklyn’s St. Ann’s Warehouse over the years, the moment you walk in to the new 29 Jay Street location and glimpse the set for MIES JULIE, the stunning production from the University of Capetown’s Baxter Theatre Centre now extended through December 16, you know you’re in for yet another wild ride.
Reminiscent of other fire breathing events of almost unbearable intensity that have come to this stealth space in DUMBO (Druid Ireland’s productions of THE WALWORTH FARCE and THE NEW ELECTRIC BALLROOM by Enda Walsh come to mind), the design is simple, yet worn and gritty. It is harsh. It is not safe. It’s definitely not kitchen sink naturalism – though there is a sink and we’re in the kitchen. Red is a recurring color. There are a lot of sharp, rusty tools leaning against walls: That doesn’t look good. Smoke wafts up toward a single rotating fan, and sustained single notes from a live saxophone signal the trance that will soon envelop you.
This simple, timeless show keeps the needle stuck at 11 on the emotional dial for an uninterrupted 90 minutes, and the effect is profound. Both the emotions and the bodies are naked. For this is a mythic theatre of images. What you see will stay with you for some time after the lights come up.
And that may not be a good thing.
The playing space is the kitchen of an old Dutch homestead farm in the desolate Karoo region of present day South Africa. Two decades after the end of apartheid, on Freedom Day, which celebrates Mandela’s election, not a whole lot appears to have changed. Black laborers work the land in poverty, while white descendants of the 19th century voortrekkers still hold sway. Yet both sides have been deformed and perhaps permanently damaged by the country’s bloody history. And today the historic and the personal will violently intersect.
John (Bongile Mantsai) and his mother Christine (Thoko Ntshinga) work the farm, while the young and volatile Julie (Hilda Cronje), daughter of the owner, flits around in an alarming state of mental and physical undress. In a kind of female version of MASTER HAROLD…AND ‘THE BOYS’, but much darker, the three have grown up together, and Julie, whose mother killed herself, has been raised by Christine. A fourth character, the ghost like Tandiwe Nofirst Lungisa, treads the perimeter of the space, singing, intoning, and playing music.
This is a kind of non verbal theatre. There are plenty of words, and yet the inevitability of the physical action is clear from the start. The intensity of the two lead performances is such that you could turn off the sound entirely and the story would come through loud and clear.
There is no peace for these characters, and perhaps no future. But for us the audience there is a reminder of what theatre – the real thing – can achieve.