A beautiful socialite, a cocktail waitress and an Uber driver are the characters who make up Queen of Basel, playing at Kitchen Dog Theater through Dec. 15. The trio, played respectively by Kat Lozano, Stephanie Cleghorn Jasso and Lee George, is set up like dominoes to represent a variety of sociological dynamics: wealth and poverty, men and women, privilege and lack thereof, white and of color. The play solidly deals with all of these issues, but it does so in a way that makes the audience despair about all of them rather than feel hope about their resolutions.
Playwright Hillary Bettis doesn’t purport to propose a new set of characters or ideas: the characters are almost directly copied from Queen of Basel ’s source material, August Strindberg’s 1888 play Miss Julie. Bettis has updated this classic piece of theater history in order to extend the themes of the original, from class and gender difference to immigration and women’s rights. You won’t find explicit mention of the title character’s “pussy” in Miss Julie; Queen of Basel, on the other hand, will flaunt our modern vernacular and its capacity both to empower and offend.
The entirety of the play takes place within the confines of a meticulously re-created hotel kitchen. Set designer David Walsch has found creative perfection in the art of immaculately imitating reality. The kitchen’s accuracy will bombard any audience member who has worked in the service industry with flashbacks, from the wear on the tile floor near the doorways to the mysterious brown drips behind the three-compartment steel sink. Setting the background stage for the night’s events, a party booms behind the swinging kitchen doors — purple and green light glimmers behind the porthole windows. The party is a part of Art Basel, the international art fair, which lends little to the play but its name. What’s important is that a wealthy man is throwing a huge party, and this man’s daughter has just collided with a cocktail waitress wearing a slutty uniform and carrying a tray of drinks. Thus, the action of the play begins.
Covered with gin, the daughter of the millionaire (billionaire?) rushes into the kitchen with the waitress, and the two begin to chat and reveal their characters while getting cleaned up. We quickly learn that Julie is five years sober and her mother is dead; meanwhile, Christine recently immigrated to Miami from Venezuela. Sadly, we don’t care much about either sob story. Most lines of dialogue within the first several minutes are either cheaply expository, or unconvincing because we don’t yet know the characters well enough. These two dialogic problems contradict each other: It takes a mean feat of writing to avoid one without immediately running into the other. The introduction of Queen of Basel doesn’t quite hit the mark: It is laced with awkwardness and unsteadiness on the part of the writing, the acting and the directing.
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The failure to navigate the tricky beginning stages of a play driven almost entirely by dialogue, however, is quickly overcome by the consistency of the characters of the socialite, Julie, and the servant, Christine. The introduction of John, an Uber driver and Christine’s fiancé, further grounds the play and allows the other characters to become more believable. Once he joins the team, all of the actors seem to find their characters, and each other. Julie is so pushy in her inquisitiveness and interest in others that we eventually believe she actually cares, and Christine’s devoted but timid care for Julie ends up having a twisted but very believable motive — money. However, Jasso’s Christine takes a backseat as the tense relationship between Julie and John develops. Complemented by George’s John, Lozano figures out how to play Julie’s atypical selfish selflessness— all of the characters are obsessed with others but always circle back to themselves.
Selfishness is the driving vice behind the play. Each character has steep goals that are oriented toward helping others, but their means and motives are selfish and ultimately destructive toward everyone around them. Julie wants to establish women’s health services in underdeveloped countries; John wants to be a family man and help his community with an affordable HVAC company; Christine wants to help the rest of her family leave Venezuela and reestablish themselves successfully in the U.S. But for each of these characters, success is a zero sum game. Any character’s victory results in the downfall of everybody else.
The tense final scene of the play, then, is driven by the question of who will come out on top. The ultimate ending is satisfying in a twisting-the-knife kind of way: It ends with strong storytelling, but it is certainly no fairy tale. This play presents possibly good people who are manipulated into cruelty by their circumstances, and utterly fail to escape their vices. There is a victor, yes (no need to say which of the characters it is), but the audience feels no inclination to applaud the victor for the character's climb to the top. Rather, we feel destitute. Does Bettis intend for us to feel so hopeless? If so, then the play is a success.
Miss Julie ends with the implication of a suicide. Although Queen of Basel flirts with the suicidal tendencies of Julie, its analogous ending is the voluntary death of virtue in all of its characters. Like the sexual tension between Julie and John, the drama of Queen of Basel begins slow and unbelievable, but recovers its credibility just as it is consummated — a consummation followed by a vicious, immoral, and yet satisfying resolution.