Monday, February 13, 2023

Queen of Basel - TheaterWorks Hartford

The play, Queen of Basel, running at Theaterworks Hartford through February 26, is a modern day incarnation of playwright August Strindberg’s 1888 naturalistic work, Miss Julie.  The Swedish writer wove in many themes into his play such as class, gender and the idealization and degradation of women. In playwright Hillary Bettis’ retelling, these issues come to the fore, but not always successfully.  The production would be more rewarding by narrowing of the ideas and questions posed in Miss Julie and more of Ms. Bettis’ own voice.


The Queen of Basel, which features a richly detailed set by Rodrigo Escalante, takes place in a basement storage area.  Upstairs, a ritzy soiree is happening.  Sound Designer German Martinez provides subtle, pulsating dance music from above.  Julie, daughter of an uncaring and unresponsive real estate baron, is ushered into the lower level space by a waitress, Christine, who accidentally spills a tray of drinks on the heiress’ party gown.  She is there to hide from possible paparazzi and dry out.  Apologizing profusely, they are interrupted by the young woman’s fiancee, an Uber driver, John, who has been called by Christine to take Julie home.  Exit the hostess.  Cue the banter and inevitable sparks between Julie and John, which cascades into a distressful and disconsolate series of events for all parties. 


The strength of Queen of Basel is the repartee between Julie and John on the erroneous assumptions made by each other based on class, race, and ethnicity.  In her notes, Director Cristina Angeles adds that the show gives us the opportunity “not to define what it means to be Latina, but to shed light on the multitudes we contain as a people.”  If the playwright kept the focus on these topics, Queen of Basel would have been a more purposeful production. 


Developing an entertaining and meaningful play within a confined space for, primarily, two performers is very difficult to favorably pull off.  Ms. Bettis has created dialogue and scenarios that only sometimes succeed.


Ms. Angeles attempts, in her staging, to ratchet up the tension and revelations between Julie and John to keep the production briskly flowing.  Some of the theatricality - the ransacking of the storage room, the boozing, and canoodling - are diverting.  However, some aspects of the show, which runs 90 minutes with no intermission, stretch the imagination.  Additionally, a 10-12 minute monologue towards the end of the show, while delivered mightily by the character of Christine, comes across as an unfulfilling and ineffective performance piece.


Julie, played with erratic gusto by Christine Spang, comes across as unlikable and volatile.  In Miss Julie, the male character, Jean, comments on Julie’s “crazy behavior.”  Ms. Spang takes this to heart, but excessively so.  Director Cristina Angeles could have injected some nuance to the performance to make it more believable and less strained.


Kelvin Grullon delivers a mostly accomplished performance as John.  His portrayal provides a ying to Ms. Spangs yang.  The actor’s easy, no-nonsense, and honest approach to the role is layered with an explosiveness, then sullenness at the play’s conclusion.  Silvia Dionicio is highly satisfying as Christine, a woman sacrificing her dignity and battling personal demons to achieve her ultimate goals.  She deftly imbues the character with a stoicism that masks personal pain and humiliation.


Queen of Basel, playing at Theaterworks Hartford through February 26.  Click here for information on dates, times, and tickets.

Friday, February 10, 2023

I Hate Hamlet - Music Theatre of CT

The comedy, I Hate Hamlet, playing at the Music Theatre of Connecticut through February 19, has a fun concept.  The ghost of legendary thespian John Barrymore, famous for his portrayal of Shakespeare’s brooding Danish prince, is summoned via a seance to mentor a self-doubting TV actor scheduled to star in the play.  Playwright Paul Rudnick’s script is intermittently funny, producing more smiles and chuckles than outright laughter.


Under the direction of Kevin Connors, the show is sprightly, but rather uneven.  In Act I, the unseen kitchen seems to be upstairs, but is ground level later in the show.  Likewise, the bedroom of the apartment is constantly referred to, but where exactly is it?


The acting of the production is also at cross purposes.  Constantine Pappas, freshly scrubbed and earnest as the television performer Andrew, comes across as too reluctant and disconcerting.  Yes, performing live theater-in-the-park might not be his usual arena, but after a while his indecisiveness and hesitancy gets a tad wearying.  Only in his more combative scenes with Barrymore does his character have more zing in his step.  


His fiancee Deidre (Elena Ramos Pascullo) is conventional and unpassioned, while Jo Anne Parady gives a modest portrayal of Andrew’s agent Lillian. At the other end of the spectrum, the two featured players, Liliane Klein as Felicia, a boisterous real estate agent and Robert Anthony Jones as Gary, an in-your-face Hollywood producer, are too over-the-top and give the play an unbalanced feel.  Only Dan O’Driscoll as the laid-back, introspective John Barrymore captures the essence of his character.  He has a deft comedic delivery, a jaunty bounce to his step, and is one believable sword fighter (he is also the production’s Fight Director and his duels with Andrew are spirited and convincing).


Sean Sanford’s Scenic Design is utilitarian at first - Andrew’s New York City apartment is drab and sparse - but has more of an old-world charm in Act II.  The stage exit by the apartment door, however, did need to be wider for the entering and exiting actors.  RJ Romeo’s Lighting Design adds some spookiness to the show.  


I Hate Hamlet - a diverting, somewhat humorous production.  Click here for dates, times and ticket information.