‘Julia’ makes Strindberg classic more relevant

Julia Bernat and Rodrigo de Odé in “Julia.” (Courtesy Marcelo Lipiani) 

In revamping Swedish playwright August Strindberg’s classic tragedy “Miss Julie” into her own work called “Julia,” Brazilian theater and film artist Christiane Jatahy has fashioned a  multi-faceted, multi-layered, multimedia event — performed in Portuguese with English subtitles — that takes place in the present, bringing to the fore issues that are very much in today’s news  — both here and in Brazil. The action is taking place before a live audience but at the same time, a director is barking commands as a cameraman broadcasts apparent filmed version of what is going on, which is also visible on screens onstage. 

The result is a unique filmed theatrical experience being streamed through Feb. 22 under the auspices of ArtsEmerson. 

Just as the U.S. has undergone a period of racial reckoning, racial issues have been bubbling up to the surface in recent years in Jahaty’s Brazil. 

The country has long been proud of seeing itself itself as simply Brazilian — often described as a tapestry of European, African and Indigenous backgrounds that has defied the more rigid racial categories used elsewhere. Some were darker, others lighter, but almost everyone was a mix. 

In reecnt years, however, as affirmative action policies meant to diversify Brazilian institutions and the struggle for racial equality in the United States inspired a similar movement in Brazil, a growing number of people began redefining themselves. Brazilians who long considered themselves to be White began reexamining their family histories and concluding that they’re pardo (mixed). Others who thought of themselves as pardo now say they’re Black. 

Jatahy’s “Julia” brings the issues of race and class to the fore. The characters include a dark-skinned servant named Jelson (Rodrigo de Odé) and the lighter-skinned young daughter Julia  (Julia Bernat) of the wealthy family that employs Jelson and has employed other family members through the years.  

There is sexual tension from the outset, when flirting at a party as Jelson observes the nubile girl quickly escalates into a dangerous sexual tryst 

Julia flaunts her control of the servant, and in the aftermath of their lustful encounter tentative plans are made to run away together before Julia’s father arrives home, plans that could prove deadly for someone in Jelson’s position and with Julia being underage. 

When the cook in the home named Cristina (Tatiana Tiburcino)  learns about the affair. She can’t live in a place where she has no respect for her boss. In her view. The affair is proof  that “they’re not better than us.”  

Julia doesn’t heed Jelson’s warnings about how dangerous their fling is and doesn’t give a second thought to the ways this could impact his life or hers until later. After a moment of intimacy, she tells him to sit down over and over while he demurs.  

Frustrated, she unleashes a vile, racist rant and he responds in kind in a blind rage. Their time together will encompass a range of searing, red-hot emotions. 

The presentation of the story is where Jahaty shines. Using the multiple media, she fastidiously, skillfully meshes theater and cinema in “Julia.” This streaming version was filmed before a live audience with video projection on split screens from a cameraman who is constantly moving during the show. 

 Behind the action are partial sets, which allow for a wide variety of perspectives from the same shot.  

It’s hard to know where to look next. At one point in the production, the fourth wall will come crashing down, and the interaction between audience and actors will become even more intimate. The cameraman (Paulo Camacho) becomes a comic foil as Jahaty blurs the lines between cinema and theater, reality and fantasy. 

“We are really proud to continue our commitment to our artists – especially our international artists – during these incredibly challenging times, and Christiane Jatahy pushes us to see the possibilities for the future of contemporary world theater,” said David Howse, Executive Director of ArtsEmerson. “It is a true privilege to present her work for audiences here in Boston – and beyond, via our digital venue. Christiane is new to the ArtsEmerson family, but we see the presentation of Julia as the beginning of a long-arc relationship between Christiane and the audience we serve.” 

“Julia” is recommended for those 18 and over and is available to stream via ArtsEmerson’s dedicated digital platform, accessible through any streaming device through Feb. 22. Tickets are Pick Your Own Price and each person who reserves tickets will be provided with a unique access password and instructions for viewing. Tickets are available at ArtsEmerson.org or by calling 617 824-8400. 

Julia Bernat and Rodrigo de Odé in “Julia.” Paulo Camacho is the cameraman. Photo:Davi Arteac