Though the Miami New Drama-commissioned “Queen of Basel” will have its official world premiere at Studio Theatre in Washington, D.C., next season, you don’t have to wait or travel to discover how playwright Hilary Bettis has reimagined August Strindberg’s controversial 1888 classic “Miss Julie.”
With three powerful actors and a small audience sharing the stage space at Miami Beach’s Colony Theatre, Miami New Drama artistic director Michel Hausmann has mounted an explosive first production of a play Bettis calls “an unapologetic response to Strindberg’s ‘Miss Julie.’” For the still-young multicultural theater company, the thrilling “Queen of Basel” plays much like the way Hausmann has described Miami itself — as an electric dream of art, language, color, class, sabor.
In devising a “Miss Julie” for the 21st century, Bettis has utilized characters and plot points in a 130-year-old Swedish play now condemned by many for its misogyny. The playwright, a staff writer for the FX series “The Americans,” has deepened the original drama’s one minimally rendered character while exploring collisions of class and gender in the culturally diverse hothouse that is contemporary South Florida.
With the audience chamber of the Colony curtained off so that about 100 theatergoers per performance are seated on three sides of the playing area, mere feet from the action, the conceit is that we’re observing a behind-the-scenes drama unfolding in a South Beach hotel storage kitchen during an over-the-top Art Basel party. The distant, insistent thump-thump-thump of a DJ plying his trade is faintly audible when two women come bursting through the kitchen’s swinging doors.
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Julie Montoya (Betsy Graver), the beautiful heiress whose father owns the hotel, is agitated and clearly on her way to being drunk. Her fiancé has just publicly dumped her before the extravaganza that would have been her wedding at the Biltmore Hotel, and paparazzi are lurking, waiting to capture images of her mascara-streaked face.
Christine (Daniela ), a server who has fled the violence in her home country of Venezuela, tries to comfort Julie as she discreetly summons her own fiancé, a Cuban American named John (Rudi Goblen) who drives for Uber and wants to cash in big-time during the madness that is Art Basel. Julie’s unseen, controlling father wants her taken home to Coconut Grove, and he’s charged Christine with making that happen.
Strong-willed Julie, however, has other ideas. Fueling an emotional roller coaster, she pulls a baggie of cocaine from her designer evening bag, snorts some, then keeps coming back to it for more jolts of energy. She chugs beer and, later, shares a bottle of wildly expensive 1959 Château Latour Bordeaux with John.
She teases, taunts and flirts with John, who declares his loyalty to Christine but finally caves and heads out to the beach for some sandy sex with the stunning blonde in the red designer gown.
After an immersive intermission break at the faux Hotel Montoya’s Basel party — complete with DJ, a bar and dancers that beckon the audience to join them — “Queen of Basel” hurtles toward a tragic ending made deeper by the back story Bettis has given Christine.
As in the original, John and Julie indulge in some post-coital fantasies about running off together, only to have John brutally turn on the gorgeous woman who could make his dreams come true when he realizes she’s broke. Then Christine quietly reenters in her street clothes, weeping, having lost her job and her dreams of a happy life with the man who just betrayed her.
In rapid-fire Spanish, insisting John translate a story he’s also hearing fully for the first time, Christine pours out the details of her descent from privilege to poverty, of the violence visited upon her family, of the deadly danger her mother and her 5-year-old daughter Elena are facing back home in Venezuela. The actress' performance in this pivotal scene is still, self-possessed, fierce and ultimately stunning.
Under Hausmann’s imaginative direction, all three actors do intricately detailed work in bringing Bettis’ emotionally complex characters to life.
Graver’s Julie is spoiled, seductive and smart, a woman who has been unable to break free of the gilded cage in which she’s kept by her domineering father. Voracious when it comes to getting what she wants, not bound by anything as quaint as morality (a quality she shares with John), she follows a trail of impulsivity and deep unhappiness into oblivion.
As John, Goblen plays a streetwise macho guy with a twist: When he’s hanging with his boys and just wanting to chill, the oenophile opts for a good Chardonnay. (That line, which gets an oh-come-on laugh, may be one of the things Bettis should consider tweaking before the play’s world premiere.) Goblen, a well-known dancer, choreographer, playwright and actor in South Florida, moves with predictable grace as he embodies a man who lies, charms and menaces with casual ease.
Bascopé, a seasoned performer known for her work on Telemundo’s “Al otro lado del muro” (“The Other Side of the Wall”) and other telenovelas, reveals major stage chops as the observant, bravely determined Christine.
With its convincing kitchen set by Ika Avaliani, class- and character-appropriate costumes by Liene Dobraja, emotion-fueling lighting design by Yuki Nakase and sound-music design by Salomon Lerner, “Queen of Basel” is getting a polished first production that convincingly plunges the audience into the play’s world.
Performed in English, with John and Christine sometimes exchanging brief untranslated remarks in Spanish, Bettis’ play gives “Miss Julie” a makeover that is sometimes amusing, often harrowing and intensely engaging. Right for and reflective of the complicated, stratified Magic City in 2018, “Queen of Basel” is likely to have a life that will take it far beyond its first production by Miami New Drama.
If you go
- What: “Queen of Basel” by Hilary Bettis.
- Where: Miami New Drama production at the Colony Theatre, 1040 Lincoln Rd., Miami Beach.
- When: 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, 3 p.m. Sunday, through May 6.
- Cost: $40-$65.
- Information: 305-674-1040 or www.colonymb.org.