Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Connecticut and the Berkshires

Queen of Basel
Review by Fred Sokol

Also see Zander's review of I Hate Hamlet

Christine Spang and Kelvin Grullon
Photo by Mike Marques
Queen of Basel, continuing through February 26 at TheaterWorks in Hartford, is an absolutely arresting theater piece, 90 minutes of striking live performance. Playwright Hilary Bettis brings her crackling script and director Cristina Angeles coaxes three dynamic performers through a most physical experience. What transpires is far from pleasant, but its thematic relevance is significantly intense and consequential.

Rodrigo Escalante's set design focuses all the action within a storage kitchen of a swanky hotel during the time of Art Basel. Contemporary, it's a wildly eclectic spin off August Strindberg's Miss Julie, which was written in 1888. Now, Julie (Christine Spang) opens the action trying to dry the recently spilled gin that might stain her elegant green dress. The culprit was waitress Christine (Silvia Dionicio), who came to Florida from Venezuela and is nervous, frightened and jittery. The third individual who later enters what is truly a multi-dimensional fray is John (Kelvin Grullon). He's an Uber driver, also a handyman type of person–and he is engaged to Christine, a young woman who already has a complex past haunting her.

For all the characters, Queen of Basel includes storytelling, secrets and revelation. On the surface, the initial focus spotlights Julie, whose father is a real estate mogul. He is symbolic of opulence and the ramifications of wealth attainted at maximum cost. If that rings a familiar bell, so be it. Take a look at the character of Logan Roy on "Succession," the television series. Or, perhaps, one might cite a real estate mogul like Donald J. Trump. It is not unusual to find the paradigm for Julie's unseen father. At TheaterWorks, the brilliance of performance shines through a number of telling rhythm changes.

Bettis' script draws immediate attention through the initial conversation wealthy socialite daughter Julie has as she banters with insecure, immigrant server Christine. Encased within that dreary-looking kitchen and benefitting from the playwright's sharply written lines, they hook the viewer during their first moments. As the plot is revealed, one is faced with a reality versus appearance conundrum. John, too, is not who or what he first seems to be. Sure, he drives people around and he's a fix-it guy. We discover his strengths and weaknesses, and consider whether he is a victim. Toss in some shock as well.

Director Angeles wisely drives forward pacing, and Bettis's dialogue is consuming. Later, however, the show requests further reflection and consideration of class differences within a society. Julie is, to be blunt, an affluent and attractive young woman who will never be wanting for financial security. Money buys happiness? Sometime in her past, Christine was far more settled and restful than she is in the present day. John is scrambling. All three struggle for contentment and, more urgently, survival.

Christine Spang, she of the many facial gestures, catches the eye instantly as Julie. The performer has been on stage in New York City and has credits for a number of television series, including (irony here?) "Succession." Her seductive mini-scene is a gem in itself. Silvia Dionicio, playing Christine, has performed at many venues including some in New York City where she studied acting. Kelvin Grullon (John) is a versatile artist who also makes films. Author Hilary Bettis, both prolific and dextrous, creates dialogue in more than one genre, including contributing to the award-winning TV series "The Americans." Cristina Angeles's specific direction proves vital for the TheaterWorks presentation. Within the context and constraints of the storage space, tension escalates and Angeles' definitive movement choices are smart and pivotal. This director facilitates excellent actor timing and interface.

Queen of Basel poses impactful questions that force reaction. The play is immersive and engrossing as its conflicts are believable and developed incrementally. Quick jolts of energy beg for continued contemplation.

Queen of Basel runs through February 26, 2023, at TheaterWorks, 233 Pearl St., Hartford CT. For tickets and information, please call 860-527-7838 or visit