Sometimes, the rawest ingredients yield the deepest flavors, as the basic instinct-driven power players passionately demonstrate in “Mies Julie,” the captivating South African reincarnation of August Strindberg’s “Miss Julie” that is ensconced for the next 10 days at Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Lansburgh Theatre.
Transposed from an estate in Strindberg’s Sweden of the late 19th century to a sprawling desert ranch in contemporary South Africa, the play is changed by director-adapter Yael Farber from a story of gamesmanship and taboo desire in a bottled-up European society to one of a sexualized racial battle for the soul of a divided African nation.
Over the course of 90 electric minutes, “Mies Julie” details the waves of resentment, mistrust, dependence, helplessness and, yes, possibly even love that course back and forth between Mies Julie, the teasingly carnal Afrikaner ranch owner’s daughter and John, the African ranch hand who covets her.
As portrayed by the marvelous, athletically matched Hilda Cronje and Bongile Mantsai, Julie and John are so hot for each other that the whole ranch at any moment is liable to spontaneously combust. The billowing steam in which set designer Patrick Curtis envelopes the shabby ranch kitchen proves, as a result, to be a complete redundancy.
And though Farber’s adaptation works on a purely physical level — rarely in American theater do we see actors using their bodies as such unabashedly expressive instruments of lust — the evening is equally compelling as a political metaphor. In their fever-dream dance for dominance over each other, Julie and John seem to play out the tangled post-Apartheid national story, of a white minority clinging to its sense of superiority and control, and a black majority still waiting for the property, as it were, to change hands.
The circumstances of Julie and John’s supercharged encounter follow Strindberg’s road map in some ways and stray from it in others. (The production was first staged in South Africa in 2012.) As in the original, Julie leaves a party and wanders into the kitchen. Here John is still at work, polishing her father’s boots. The shoes may as well be yokes; they’re visible for the entire play, reminders of the obligation from which John can’t find release. The other reminder is John’s proper, God-fearing mother Christine (Thoko Ntshinga) — the character was his fiancee in the Strindberg — a servant on the ranch who raised Julie and stiffens at the thought of a liaison between her and her son.
To widen the play’s historical lens, Farber creates a new character, the physical embodiment of John and Christine’s ancestral ties to the land. As played by Tandiwe Nofirst Lungisa, this unnamed spectral figure in ragged dress haunts the proceedings, humming the notes of an ancient dirge. Julie’s father may own the deed, but John and Christine own some more profound title, as they clean the floors under which their ancestors are buried.
An insistent musical underscoring, performed onstage by Daniel and Matthew Pencer, intensifies the suggestion of sacred rites, just as Cronje and Mantsai advance inexorably into each other’s arms, as if their assignation were predetermined. It’s a ritual rooted in rivalry and attraction that ends in horror. Although first, it culminates in a graphic display of sex.
The magnetic pull has to do with what Julie and John have both experienced on the ranch in the Karoo. Julie, rejected by her own mother, has, like John, always been under her father’s thumb, a condition that has stirred her rebellious and restless streaks. By the evening on which “Mies Julie” takes place, she’s all but climbing the walls with desire for John. And Mantsai’s John, in turn, fixes her in a gaze that fully prepares you for the moment when he tears off her thin red dress.
“Mies Julie” does not entirely elude the impression of being a bodice-ripper: There are a few poses here that indeed could make a cover for a romance novel. And portents of tragedy are foreshadowed in a manner that come across as overly literary: Christine is called upon, for instance, to perform a procedure offstage on a family pet that’s too transparent an allusion to the violent act by Julie late in the play.
The main event, though, keeps this production entrancingly on course. Cronje and Mantsai invest their confrontation with the kinetic ferocity of gladiators, a contest that could not fail to receive a thumbs up in any coliseum.
written and directed by Yael Farber, based on “Miss Julie” by August Strindberg. Set and lighting, Patrick Curtis; costumes, Birrie le Roux; music composed and performed by Daniel and Matthew Pencer. About 90 minutes. Tickets, $60. Through Nov. 24 at Lansburgh Theatre, 450 7th St. NW. Call 202-547-1122 or visit www.shakespearetheatre.org.