by Betsy Labiner
Here’s what you’re in for with Something Something Theatre’s The Hall of Final Ruin: death. But a good death. A death that makes you laugh. A death that forces you to face your own mortality and confront the terror of the unknown. Death that is relentless and unyielding. Death that allows for hope and possibility. Death that acknowledges no limits on time or space, and certainly not the limits of the fourth wall.
The Hall of Final Ruin, written by Kelly McBurnette-Andronicos and directed by Alida Holguín Gunn, initially presents the audience with death in the form of Doña Sebastiana, a “death car driver” played with delightful panache and boundless sass by an absolutely superb Guillermo Francisco Raphael Jones. Doña Sebastiana doesn’t mince words when reminding the audience that every one of us is going to die, and demands self-reflection even while slinging profanity and cheeky barbs. Sebastiana segues into the main action of the play by inviting, “Let’s watch Doña Tules die, ¿bueno?”
And so we meet La Tules, played by Rosanne Couston, the matriarch who presides over her granddaughters, the gambling hall, and indeed, over all of Santa Fe. Couston imbues La Tules with sharp pragmatism as a woman in a position of power who is concerned with the legacy she’ll leave behind, but also interweaves moments of vulnerability and fear as she contemplates death and her eternal fate.
La Tules is particularly concerned with what will happen to her granddaughters, Carmelita and Rallitos, as well as her servant Pilar, played by Amália Clarice Mora, Nathalie Rodriguez, and Cisiany Olivar, respectively. The four women, though not biologically related, are a convincing little family, by turns supportive and squabbling, loving and lashing out. The arrival of Sister Jane, played by Angie Garcia, adds an interesting wrinkle to their dynamic as the girls fawn over the white woman even as the older women are suspicious of and even disgusted by her sanctimonious attitudes. Couston certainly has the most to work with, as this really is La Tules’s story, but the women all bring strengths to the play — particularly the physical comedy of Rodriguez and the quick banter between Rodriguez and Mora.
It’s worth noting that this play is woman-centric in all senses, both within the world of the play and from the metatheatrical perspective. Men are named and discussed in the dialogue, but never appear onstage. Instead, we see life and death without the direct presence of the overbearing male hegemony we might expect within the world of a play set in the 19th century.
In forcing us to face death, this play encourages us to face our own failings. Pride and greed are the sins on which the play focuses most heavily, but the blunt discussions of scoring rubrics for the soul and the impact of our actions will have audiences reflecting on the grade they might make – and whether they, like La Tules, need to work to improve it.
While The Hall of Final Ruin is about deeply personal themes such as fear, redemption, love, and family dynamics (or dysfunction), it also takes on macro socio-political issues. The setting of mid-1800s Santa Fe allows for overt discussion of patriarchy, imperialism, and capitalism, and even when these issues aren’t being actively talked about, they remain present in the way they shape ideologies and events. Power dynamics, particularly as manifested through control of land and money, are a major concern. Even as Doña Tules insists that the Norteamericanos — as she calls the white Euro-American settlers — will not wrest control from Spaniards who’ve held the land for three hundred years, Pilar reminds her that Native Americans held it for over a thousand years prior to the arrival of the conquistadors. The play invites the audience to consider the legacy not just of individuals, but of the mass movements and historical moments in which religions, cultures, and peoples supplanted one another. This, for me, was one of the strongest features of the play; death may be able to cure one individual of her greed, but when insatiable greed is part of the very foundation of a society or culture, it’s much harder to address.
Despite the heavy topics on which the play focuses, it is a comedy. The audience laughed throughout, particularly in Doña Sebastiana’s scenes. I’d recommend this play most to those who enjoy dark humor, and who have an appreciation for American Gothic and a willingness to critically assess both history and oneself.
The Hall of Final Ruin runs February 22 through March 10 at the Temple of Music and Art’s Cabaret Theater at 330 S. Scott Avenue. Tickets can be purchased online at www.somethingsomethingtheatre.com or by phone at 520-468-6111.