Kitchen Dog Theater tells a provocative story in Hilary Bettis' 'Queen of Basel'
Queen of Basel has a lot to say. A contemporary adaptation of August Strindberg's 1888 play, Miss Julie, Hilary Bettis' script has given a new voice to the story. The voice is more empowered, especially for the female characters, but like Strindberg, Bettis has developed a play that is dialogical and philosophical. Kitchen Dog Theater's production of the new work, directed by Co-Artistic Director Christopher Carlos, successfully enlivens what is at times a dense conversation about race, power, and class.
Bettis' play follows the plot and characters of Strindberg somewhat slavishly, so even though I went into the play hoping to separate Queen of Basel from Miss Julie, I found it almost impossible not to compare them. If you're curious about what a contemporary Naturalistic drama looks like, this is the play to see.
When you enter the theater space, you're immediately inside an industrial kitchen. Set Designer David Walsh has excelled at creating a highly realistic and detail-oriented space, down to stains on the tiled walls and the random catering supplies packed in every nook and cranny. The small space is the only place the characters have to go, and Walsh's kitchen becomes a pressure cooker.
In Queen of Basel, Julie is an heiress to a powerful art mogul. This play takes place during Art Basel, an annual party in Miami that caters to the rich and famous. Julie's father is an invisible character in the play, but with Kitchen Dog Artistic Theater Artistic Company Member John M. Flores' sound design, the father is brought to life. In Strindberg's play, the father is never seen except for his boots and gloves onstage -- a powerful nonverbal message of the father's control over Miss Julie. In Queen of Basel, the father's presence is felt throughout both by Julie's rebellion against him and the loud techno music spilling over from the party happening in the hotel's ballroom. Honestly, I found the techno music irritating and oppressive, and that's exactly why I think it's a successful metaphor for the hold Julie's father has over her. The music in inescapable, and once it finally, slowly, fades away, I felt both relieved and empty. It's an extremely effective, and unexpected, use of sound in a live play.
Julie, played by Kat Lozano, is caught in a triangulation between John (played by Lee George) and Christine (played by Stephanie Cleghorn Jasso), and her own desires. But she's caught there because she chose to put herself there. Bettis has successfully given Julie more choice in this play, even if those choices are tragically self-destructive. Julie is caught between the materialistic path of her father and fiancée and her altruistic desires to use her privilege for the betterment of others. Kat Lozano is simultaneously sultry, seductive, snobby, privileged, altruistic, vulnerable, and desperate. Under Carlos' direction, Lozano delivers Julie's complex and sometimes contradictory choices expertly.
For me, the surprising heroine in the play is Christine, and maybe she is the character in the play that allowed Bettis to transcend Strindberg's control. Played with tenderness and bravery by Stephanie Cleghorn Jasso, Christine appears, at the beginning of the play, as soft spoken and vulnerable. An immigrant from Venezuela, Christine has fled her country due to violence, and she's working as a cocktail waitress in order to bring her daughter and family to the United States. It's a timely and urgent detail. The play hinges on the struggle of class, race, and power -- what power really means, or from where power originates -- and Christine's reveal at the end of the play felt like a lightning strike in my chest. I promise it's worth the wait.
The costume design for this production also helped tell the story in a successful way. When we first meet Christine, her waitress costume is comically slutty with bright pink neon hot pants and black corset-like top. Based on her appearance, it's easy to write her off as the submissive type. When she returns at the end of the play, she's changed, and we are tipped off to her internal change by her change of clothes. The costume designer (Kitchen Dog Theater Artistic Company Member Korey Kent) gives Christine a grounded, soft, "everyday" outfit that emits a frequency of unexpected grace and class. Here, we see the idea of class as self-respect versus how much money you have or how connected you are. Kent's costume design for Christine's shocking reveal is the antithesis to her objectifying waitress uniform, and I personally found it to be a surprising and sophisticated detail. The costume aids the story so successfully because Jasso nails the monologue.
As a writer and advocate for the arts, I found this review was hard to tackle. Bettis' play is frustrating, stimulating, and risky. Kitchen Dog Theater is no stranger to risk-taking, and this play, in my opinion, is a monumental undertaking due to its dialogue-driven Naturalism and inflammatory questions about race, class, and power. I said in the beginning that the play has a lot to say, and I find that I have a lot to say about it too -- more than I can put in an article, really. My husband and I discussed the play all the way home, and an hour after that. I woke up days later with questions about it, and I spent a lot of time contemplating how exactly to write about it. I think that's the sign of a powerful and dynamic story. I sincerely encourage you to see Queen of Basel at Kitchen Dog Theater. Embrace the uncomfortable conversation. Don't shy away from what it brings up for you -- Bettis' play and Carlos' production certainly haven't.
Queen of Basel by Hilary Bettis is showing at Kitchen Dog Theater through Sunday, December 15 at Trinity River Arts Center, located at 2600 N. Stemmons Freeway, Suite #180 in Dallas. Performances are Thursday through Saturday evenings at 8 pm, with additional performances on Sunday at 2 pm (11/24, 12/1, 12/8 and 12/15). Please note: there will be NO performance on Thanksgiving, November 28th. For tickets and more information, please call the Kitchen Dog Theater box office at 214-953-1055 or buy online at kitchendogtheater.org.