Desire and difference – Miami New Drama’s Queen of Basel remakes a classic

The rich, oblivious, self-centered white girl. The dark-skinned Cuban guy seething with ambition and anger. The desperate Venezuelan woman who fled the violent chaos of her home country. We think we know these characters, just like they think they know each other. But by the end of Queen of Basel, the new production from Miami New Drama which opens Saturday at the Colony Theatre, everyone will be surprised.

Playwright Hilary Bettis’ remake of Strindberg’s classic Miss Julie takes on our most divisive issues – race, class, gender, immigration. But Bettis, a working-class outsider whose talent has brought her to the height of American culture, also finds the human common ground between the characters strung apart by their differences. Intersectionalism, individualized.

Queen of Basel is part of the same John S. and James L. Knight Foundation-funded project that yielded MND’s multi-lingual version of Our Town, which launched the troupe’s season last fall. That show translated parts of Thornton Wilder’s script into Spanish and Haitian Creole, but otherwise kept the text, characters and setting the same.

Queen of Basel is a much more radical re-imagining of the original, and a far more Miami-centric play. Instead of a Swedish estate during Midsummer carnival in the late 1800’s, it’s set in a bleak basement kitchen of a fancy South Beach hotel during a hyped-up Art Basel party. The title character, the arrogant daughter of a count, becomes the arrogant socialite daughter of a wealthy real estate developer. Her opponent-seducer, the valet Jean, is now the Afro-Cuban Uber driver John – the fiancé of cocktail waitress and Venezuelan refugee Christine, a negligible figure for Strindberg whom Bettis turns into perhaps the most unexpected character of the night.

Rudi Goblen and Daniela Bascope in Miami New Drama's Queen of Basel, by Hilary Bettis.
Rudi Goblen and Daniela Bascope in Queen of Basel.

MND artistic director and co-founder Michel Hausmann commissioned Queen of Basel, the first in what he hopes to make a regular series of new plays that will put his troupe onto the national map of theater creators.

But the idea pre-dates Miami New Drama. Hausmann and Bettis met several years ago, when both were fellows at the New York Theater Project. Hausmann, who was raised in a cultured, middle-class Jewish family in Venezuela and ran a successful theater company there before political turmoil brought him to study at Columbia University, was fascinated not only by Bettis’ talent, but her background. Bettis is from a working-class family with a Mexican grandfather, and grew up all over the country, including a conservative, religious, gun-loving town in Texas near the border. In a harrowing interview with Pulitzer Prize winning playwright Marsha Norman for American Theatre Magazine, Bettis tells of being sexually molested at six, and raped at gunpoint at 14 – and speaks forcefully about women’s strength and endurance.

“Women haven’t survived for eons by being “weak” and “emotional.” We’ve survived by being a hell of a lot tougher and braver than we’re given credit for,” Bettis says. “I saw so much value and dignity in my own life and in the lives of women around me.”

Betsy Graver in Miami New Drama's Queen of Basel, by Hilary Bettis.
Not so golden girl – Betsy Graver in Miami New Drama’s Queen of Basel.

Hausmann had long been fascinated by Miss Julie, a pillar of modern drama whose misogyny – Jean abuses, manipulates and rapes Julie, not just out of class resentment, but for her uppity early feminism, until she finally commits suicide – had left it out of sync with contemporary thinking. “I find it dramatically brilliant and morally repulsive, because it’s profoundly misogynistic,” he says. Unsurprisingly, when he asked Bettis to adapt Miss Julie, she told him “I fucking hate that play.” His response was “precisely – that’s why I want you to tackle it.”

Bettis had lived in scrappy poverty, even been briefly homeless, until her talent garnered her a fellowship at Juilliard and a long string of residencies and fellowships at some of the most prominent theaters and institutions in the country. Her background, and her journey from bleak lower-class normal to the cultural and intellectual heights (she’s also a story editor on the brilliant FX hit The Americans) made her uniquely qualified to understand, and explore, the layers of class, gender conflict, sexism, cultural difference, sex and power she brings to life in Queen of Basel.

“She found a hell of a way to tell an incredible contemporary story that deals with issues that are very American and specifically Miamian,” says Hausmann. Especially the issue of the widening gap between rich and poor, a particularly fraught subject in Miami, with its many exiles from Latin American conflicts between dictatorship and socialism, and the way that social differences are exacerbated by immigration.

“Class is key here,” says Hausmann. “I think that class is as important as race in terms of who gets to the top of the pyramid and who doesn’t. But we have not found a way to articulate our concerns about class in the way we have about race. Miami is more diverse than the country as a whole, but the income disparity here is also more extreme than in America as a whole. So these are the issues we need to deal with as artists in this community.”

Betsy Graver and Rudi Goblen in Miami New Drama's Queen of Basel, by Hilary Bettis.
Betsy Graver and Rudi Goblen in Queen of Basel

He and Bettis workshopped early versions of Queen of Basel at the Miami Light Project two years ago (which brought in Betsey Graver, the in-demand and much respected Miami actress who now plays Julie.) Over time and visits to Miami, Bettis filled out her three characters, who speak in a mix of English and Spanish. Julie, who flees to the kitchen when her fiancé ignominiously dumps her in the middle of her father’s fancy party, initially seems like a spoiled socialite, but turns out to have her own frustrations and anger at the Barbie-esque role forced on her by her position and gender. Christine, who’s been ordered by Julie’s father to take care of his daughter, has endured horrors that turn out to give her surprising strength. John, summoned to drive Julie home, righteous about Julie’s entitlement and how race and poverty keep him down, makes his own sexist assumptions about the two women. None of them have what they want, or what they expected. And sex/lust/desire complicate everything.

The cast is as Miami as the story. Rudi Goblen, the renaissance-artist who started as self-taught co-founder of hiphop dance crew Flipside Kings before becoming an actor, writer and author of solo shows like PET, plays John – his first major, straight acting role. Christine is played by Daniela Bascope, a Venezuelan actress who’s currently starring in Telemundo’s immigration telenovela El Otro Lado del Muro (The Other Side of the Wall), and whose memoir about surviving cancer has made her an inspirational figure. And Graver, a Florida native and New World School of the Arts graduate, has added parts in Netflix’s Bloodline and Starz’s Magic City to her reputation as one of Miami’s best actresses at troupes like Zoetic Stage, Gablestage and Palm Beach Dramaworks.

This will also be MND’s most radically immersive production yet. Not only will the audience be seated onstage with the actors, startlingly close to some very intense action, but designer Ika Avaliani, another early Hausmann collaborator whose wildly varied international resume includes film, ballet and opera as well as theater, will transform the Colony in wonderfully disorienting ways that have to remain a surprise until the show opens. That means there’s just 100 tickets for each performance (Saturday and Sunday are already sold out) – not many for a play that promises to show Miami and its people in a way that’s as intense and unexpected as the city itself.

Queen of Basel runs April 12 to May 6 at the Colony Theatre, 1040 Lincoln Rd., Miami Beach. Shows are 8pm Thursday – Saturday and 3pm Sunday. Tickets $40 to $65 at colonymb.org or 800-211-1414.

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