Dallas — Playwright Hilary Bettis did her job and then some, when she wrote Queen of Basel in 2016.
Commissioned by Miami New Drama to “reimagine” Miss Julie, a classic downer written in 1888 by notoriously misogynistic Swedish playwright August Strindberg, Bettis kept the plot and setting pretty much intact, but moves her impetuous rich girl, religious poor girl, and ambitious male from the kitchen of a great estate in Sweden to Art Basel, Miami’s weeklong party scene where rich patrons eat, drink, and buy art or whatever they want.
We’re still in a kitchen in Kitchen Dog Theater’s regional premiere of the 80-minute play, directed with the urgency of sudden lust and an underlying struggle for control by Co-Artistic Director Christopher Carlos. Here, set designer David Walsh has installed the industrial storage kitchen of a posh hotel, furnished with dully shining stainless steel sinks and cabinets, hard linoleum floors and a pair of swinging doors in the rear that lead out to a dining room where a rich, hard-partying crowd is getting down to an insistent hip-hop beat we hear from the time we enter the intimate playing space.
The plot is stirred up in the first fast scene. Julie (Kat Lozano), the glamorous daughter of the famed hotel owner, bursts into the kitchen to escape her father, her high-roller fiancé and the ever-present paparazzi. Elegant heiress Julie collides with cocktail waitress Christine (Stephanie Cleghorn Jasso), dumping booze all down her clingy designer dress, slit to the thigh and now reeking with gin. Costume designer Korey Kent likes a tight fit.
A recovering alcoholic, Julie’s terrified she’ll end up on a tabloid front page, dress soiled and diamonds glittering. She grabs her cell and begs her fiancé to meet her at an exit. Equally distressed Christine, outfitted in the hotel’s grotesque waitress uniform of fuchsia lame short-shorts and matching wig, calls her own Uber-driving fiancé John (Lee George) to help Julie escape.
In walks tall, dark and double-parked John, a sharp-witted man of Cuban descent. Distraught Julie instantly, almost involuntarily, goes straight into rich-bitch seduction mode for this working-class guy betrothed to a waitress, a la Strindberg, the moment good-hearted Christine heads back out the doors to serve drinks and keep her job. After all, this dark-eyed Venezuelan immigrant is working the big-tip circuit, wearing a sex-toy costume because she has a toddler to support, and is trying to bring the rest of her family to join her.
Strindberg was all into tossing people of different economic class and social expectations into a small space to see who survives. Naturalism, a French theater movement attractive to the gloomy Swede, tends to view nature from a Hobbesian viewpoint, “as red in tooth and claw,” rather than a Romantic nurturer of love and the soul. Hobbes thought, as did Romantics, we become what we behold. Bettis, an award-winning writer for her work on TV’s The Americans, shines a Latinx and feminist light on the 130-year-old drama.
As Julie goes in for the kill, kicking off her silver heels and wiggling her bare white toes in John’s face, she also talks of her proud Colombian heritage on her grandmother’s side, and how this genetically authentic passion drives her to want to help poor, male-exploited women in central America. George’s John, alternately swaggering and genuinely sincere in his loyalty to Christine, confesses his own dreams of success. No easy feat, to talk race, politics, and economic inequality, while simultaneously cranking up the sexual tension. Lozano’s alluring Julie, bold and vulnerable at once, and Lee’s ice-melting John, manage to make the wine-scented seduction scene authentic.
Cleghorn Jasso’s Christine has a harder role to bring off, especially in the longish monologue in Spanish, translated somewhat awkwardly and in bits and pieces by John, revealing her own past and priorities. Still, when push comes to shove-off, Jasso brings a surprising and crucial ruthlessness to the cash-strapped, sympathetic, hard-working waitress who loves her family.
The sheer speed at which this plot boils over carries us to Bettis’ Miami finale, which feels only a little less grim than Strindberg’s nihilistic view of life options for women. At least here, we have a sense of women attempting to create a life based on values not entirely dependent on male economic and sexual control.
At one point, a rejected and cold-eyed Julie stares straight at the swinging doors and speculates on human failure to build trust, “It doesn’t matter how we try, we just rip each other apart.” Hobbes would agree. So would Strindberg. Bettis? See Kitchen Dog’s in-your-face, steamy three-hander and decide for yourself.