‘Queen of Basel’ – The Art of Empathy

If you go to Queen of Basel looking for a humorous send-up of of arty-farty snobs in the world of curators and collectors, you’ll be disappointed. But if you’re up for a searing flagellation of the Latin monolith, you’ll be rewarded with this audacious and unflinching take on what it means to be Hispanic in America. How brown must you be? What is the legitimizing level of trauma? Hilary Bettis (TV’s The Americans) overturns a log revealing a writhing universe of race, wealth, ambition, loss, power, and values within the Latin community in her bold and contemporary take on August Strindberg’s 19th Century classic Miss Julie.

Queen of Basel tangles the lives of three profoundly different human experiences: jewel-encrusted heiress and socialite Julie (Christy Escobar), recently arrived Venezuelan waitress Christine (Dalia Davi), and her Cuban-Haitian fiancé, Uber driver John (Andy Lucien). Each carries assumptions and blindspots, yet all three have a deep connection to their heritage, and a desperation to be honestly and truly seen.

It quickly becomes clear that more than an unpended tray of martinis on her Oscar de la Renta gown has Julie cowering from her father’s glam Art Basel gala in an unused industrial kitchen of his luxurious South Beach hotel. Troubled, wild, and damaged, Escobar sears the stage as Julie, her feral vacillation between kindness and cruelty, benevolence and manipulation, giving insight to the forces that created her. Christine is her foil, a calm caregiver balancing her wish to attend Julie’s safety against her need to keep her job and ultimately secure the safety of her mom and daughter in turbulent in Venezuela. At the behest of the patriarch, she summons John, the quintessence of strength and masculinity, to quietly and quickly remove Julie from scandal’s reach.

When John’s car is towed, marooned Julie and John spar in a tight, authentic human drama presenting and dismantling stereotypes of class, race, and culture. While painful to watch each character’s devolution, it’s impossible to look away from the brilliant script and performances. Offstage much of the play, Davi’s controlled execution is as strong when she is silent as when she speaks, and ultimately it is she who delivers the bomb to explode them all.

Design is pitch perfect. In Ivania’s Stack’s costumes, Julie manipulates her sexuality through the slit in her formal designer gown like a laser, in comparison to Christine, who must bear her ass hanging out of a skimpy Vegas-style uniform with prosaic resolve. Debra Booth’s utilitarian set will feel familiar to anyone who’s ever worked in food services. The fluorescent cage of metal shelves filled with authentic detritus of industrial kitchens becomes increasingly disordered in perfect cadence with the unraveling characters. M.L. Dogg’s thumping background beats perfectly capture the “downstairs” of a ballroom bash.

For Bettis, Queen of Basel is a play about empathy. “Unlike Strindberg, I believe hope is on the other side of darkness. If we can face our pain without weaponizing it, if we can learn to have empathy for the pain in others, perhaps we can find hope and healing.” Decide for yourself – pay homage to the Queen of Basel before she’s gone.

Queen of Basel is playing at Studio Theater (1501 14th Street NW, Washington, DC 20005) through April 7, 2019. Running time: 1 hour and 20 minutes, with no intermission. For information or tickets, call the box office at 202-232-7267, or click here. Please note the content advisory at the website.

Photos credit: C. Stanley Photography

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