Queen of Basel at TheaterWorks Hartford
Updates Stringberg's Miss Julie
By: Karen Isaacs - Feb 22, 2023
Miss Julie by the Nobel laureate playwright August Strindberg was initially set on Midsummer’s eve on an estate in 19th century Sweden.
Could it work set in 21st-century America? Playwright Hilary Bettis’ clever adaptation shows that it can.
This piece packs the same punch that the original does. It illustrates the power of sex, class, status and money. It is also about our ability to destroy ourselves and others. Swedish playwright Strindberg did not have an optimistic view of society or humans. He could be described as a misogynist.
In Queen of Basel, now at TheaterWorks Hartford through Sunday, Feb. 26, Bettis moves the location to Miami; instead of the raucous Midsummer eve party on the estate, it’s the raucous and drunken party following the opening of Miami’s Basel Art Fest. The characters are no longer the daughter of the Count, the cook and the valet; they are the daughter of a real estate magnate, a waitress at the party and an Uber driver.
But the broad outline of the plot remains the same – Miss Julie begins as a petulant rich woman whose father controls all the strings. In the first scene in a small storeroom near where the party is taking place, she patronizes and befriends Christine, a waitress for the party. When John appears, the uber driver and Christine’s finance, Julie is both haughty and seductive. She refuses to let John drive her home, but stays, falls off the wagon and seduces John. By the end of the play, each is destroyed in some way.
Bettis has not only set the play in Miami, but each of the characters has a different Hispanic background. Christine recently arrived from Venezuela, John is Cuban and Dominican, and Julie’s family is Colombian.
But as in the original work, John has ambitions and dreams, which Julie fans by offering to finance then. It is a delusion because her father controls the purse strings. Christine also has a dream, but Julie’s is the most surprising; she wants to start a non-profit foundation.
At the finale, Julie humiliates her father in what may be her only way to exert self-determination and power and perhaps gain some independence.
Directed by Cristina Angeles her outstanding cast has made this as troubling as the original was. Do you feel sorry for Julie who has no real freedom despite a Harvard MBA and lots of money? Her father openly disdains her and any aspirations she has. Christine Spang manages to convey her delusions, her manipulations and yet still lets us feel some sympathy for her. While she has tried to use Christine and John, it turns out she was being used all along.
Or is your sympathy with Christine? Slowly we learn her backstory of her fleeing violence in Venezuela, leaving behind her daughter, her family having lost the hotels they owned. She had been in Julie’s position. Perhaps that is contrived. Silva Dionicio brings out Christine’s manipulations and her use of sex. After all she and John got engaged very quickly.
Perhaps the most sympathetic is Kelvin Grullon as John. He seems caught in the unspoken battle between the two women.
Julie’s unseen father is the villain of the piece. A man who has put down and controlled his daughter because she is female. As Julie says (and I paraphrase), women must pretend to be less so that men will love them.
Sound designer Germén Martínez creates the ambiance of the party in the next room, the street sounds, and at the end, the paparazzi ready to record Julie’s ultimate act of self-hatred.
Harry Nadal has created the playboy-bunny-like costume for Christine and the seductive gown for Julie.
Angeles, as director, helps the actors mine the contradictory themes of the work and make sense of the contradictory actions and twists.
Queen of Basel, like its inspiration Miss Julie, is not an easy play. But it gives us complex characters and raises interesting issues – how each of us uses whatever we can to get what we want.
A week after seeing this, I am still thinking about it. Each time, I find something new.
For tickets visit TWHartford.org
This content courtesy of Shore Publications and Zip06.com