Queen of Basel: A Review

Studio Theatre presents a volatile new adaptation of Strindberg’s 19th century chamber drama, Miss Julie. Work-shopped at Miami New Drama and premiering at Studio, Queen of Basel is a fearless confrontation of power and identity — themes familiar to Studio audiences under David Muse’s creative direction.

Written by Hilary Bettis and directed by José Zayas, Queen of Basel features three Latinx characters existing at conflicting intersections of power and oppression. The trio fight for dominance and survival, all the while examining the cruelties we enact on each other in order to live in today’s America.  

Queen of Basel is set in South Beach, Miami during Art Basel — party time for the upper crust society of the art world. The show opens to a gleaming, sterile, cluttered kitchen in a luxury hotel. It’s a familiar sight to anyone used to working in a restaurant: a scene towering with jugs of cleaning chemicals, plastic crates, and cardboard boxes of foodstuffs. There’s a stainless steel work table in the center of the stage. It’s maddeningly claustrophobic, but you can’t escape — a clever visual device for the play’s central conflict.

At the top of the show, Julie (Christy Escobar) — an heiress-socialite and the daughter of the hotel owner — tumbles onto the stage in a green velvet grown [big nods to excellent costume design by Ivania Stack]. Julie charges into the hotel’s kitchen after Christine (Dalia Davi) has spilled a cocktail tray on her at the party. Christine, an Ashkenazi-Venezuelan immigrant and now cocktail waitress, tries to calm down Julie amidst her gin-soaked meltdown.

Julie is hiding in the kitchen, waiting for her fiance to pick her up so she can go home without causing a public scene and embarrassing her father and his associates. Julie’s fiance doesn’t answer, so Christine brings in back-up in the form of John (Andy Lucien), who is Christine’s partner and incidentally an Uber driver. John is implored to take Julie home from the party: Julie is the messy party guest that must be taken care of and Christine must return to work. John and Julie are left alone in the kitchen, sparking a confrontation of race and privilege.

“We’re stuck in purgatory so we may as well socialize,” John tells Julie after she makes clear she has no intentions of leaving. During the course of their dialogue we witness Julie positioned as the Oppressor — charming and cruel and aware of her own power. As “the socialite heiress of magic city,” Julie is a portrait of entitlement, and the luxury of her life exists at the expense of everyone around her. Underneath Julie’s velveteen artificiality, Bettis has woven moments of vulnerability and occasional tenderness. We have seen Julie before — a sad rich girl with alcoholic tendencies — but Bettis dives deeper, breathing a new dimension into Strindberg’s characters.

At the crux of this play is a clashing of identities: Julia is white-passing, being half Colombian, John is Cuban and Haitian, and Christine and Venezuelan and Ashkenazi. Spanish language is used to demonstrate their degrees of privilege; Julie only knows conversational Spanish, and Christine and John are both fluent. Language becomes a battle ground for power. Beyond language, Zayas’ direction works to create a fluctuating power dynamic between the characters — sometimes Christine is Julie’s foil, sometimes it’s John, and the audience’s sympathies ebb and flow throughout the production.

In it’s best moments, Queen of Basel is a high energy, emotional volley and power play between John and Julie. From plastic crates and kitchen surfaces, John and Julie assert that their identities do not absolve them of prejudices; Julie argues that John’s being black does not absolve him of his misogyny, and he counters that Julia’s being Colombian does not absolve her of her racism. She insists that “being Colombian is deeply important” to her, but is able to neatly hide away her racial identity when it is useful to her.

The unsung star of the show is Christine. Whereas Julie’s performance sometimes edges too far into Old Hollywood theatrics, — this larger-than-life grandeur that radiates from actor and character — Christine is grounded, comfortable even. In this relationship, there is a gorgeous symmetry in gesture between Christine and Julie; in two scenes, the women take pause post-meltdown to take out compacts, powder their noses, and tousle their hair. In their acts, there is a sense that none of us are untouchable from tragedy, but that we must put ourselves together and confront our lot in life.

Bettis’ adaptation feels fresh and relevant. The new text is subversive and the characters negotiate far more complex identities than the previous 19th century chamber drama; the social darwinism of Strindberg is at play, but it’s more complicated now. Being set in present day Miami also allows for discussion of US immigration issues and the Venezuelan presidential crisis and collapse. The show has aired amidst Venezuela’s nationwide blackout, chronic food shortages and unstable government, and we learn that such instability is what motivates Christine and John to act as they do. Meanwhile, Julie is sheltered from this catastrophe; perhaps she is a stand-in for white American audiences. Queen of Basel is a great unraveling of race, power, and gender, and how these systems keep us apart.

Queen of Basel is playing at the Studio Theater until April 7. Get your tickets here.

From left: John, Julie, and Christine of  Queen of Basel . Photo by Teddy Wolf.

From left: John, Julie, and Christine of Queen of Basel. Photo by Teddy Wolf.