Queen of Basel – Review by Tom Holehan

Currently on the boards at Hartford TheaterWorks is a prime example of a contemporary playwright dumbing down a classic for the masses. The play is “Queen of Basel” by Hilary Bettis and the classic she has given an American slant is “Miss Julie”, August Strindberg’s masterwork about class, dominance and sexual politics between a wealthy woman and her male valet.

As the “Queen of Basel” opens, Julie (Christine Spang, working very hard), the privileged daughter of a hotel magnate, has just had a literal run-in with hotel staffer Christine (Silvia Dionicio) resulting in Julie’s Oscar de la Renta dress being drenched with wine. Set during Art Basel, the leading global platform hosting collectors and artists in Miami, Julie and Christine have taken retreat in the dingy storage kitchen of her dad’s 5-star hotel. The playwright then contrives 90 uninterrupted minutes of preachy debate relating to class and power divisions within the Latinx community. It is a struggle to sit through.

Under Cristina Angeles’ blunt direction, “Queen of Basel” seems determined to cover a checklist of various class issues just skimming the surface before rushing on to the next debate point. Spang has the toughest job playing the unlikable Julie who remains so even with a long, sad monologue about her mother’s death from breast cancer. It must also be noted that Spang’s performance is excessively broad with rarely a moment of authenticity. Dionicio fares better especially in her reaction to Julie’s promises of help that we know will never come to pass. The third side of the triangle is John (Kelvin Grullon), Christine’s boyfriend, an Uber driver who has been called in to help Julie escape the paparazzi. It is the power dynamics between Julie and John that make up the bulk of the play where Grullon delivers admirably and nearly survives the problematic script.

Most impressive in this production, however, is Rodrigo Escalante’s superb set design. The detail of the kitchen is so raw and real it points up everything phony about the script. Harry Nadal’s costuming (Julie’s dress works spectacularly well) and Emma Deane’s lighting are also deserving of praise. Otherwise, and in a rare sour note from me about TheaterWorks, this is not a very rewarding evening of theatre.

“Queen of Basel” continues at TheaterWorks, 233 Pearl Street in Hartford through February 26. For further information and ticket reservations call the theatre box office at 860.527.7838 or visit: theaterworkshartford.org.

Tom Holehan is one of the original founders of the Connecticut Critics Circle, a frequent contributor to WPKN Radio’s “State of the Arts” program and the Stratford Crier and Artistic Director of Stratford’s Square One Theatre Company. He welcomes comments at: tholehan@yahoo.com. His reviews and other theatre information can be found on the Connecticut Critics Circle website: www.ctcritics.org.