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.