Bringing Literature to Life On Stage at The Rogue Theatre

Editor’s Note: This is the sixth in a series of interviews with creative decision makers and artistic directors at all of Tucson’s theatres as we look forward to the 2019-2020 season.

Touring the golden cage with The Rogue Theatre’s Joe McGrath and Cynthia Meier.

by Leigh Moyer

Rogue logo“What we’ve managed to do is build a golden cage for ourselves,” said Joe McGrath, Artistic Director of The Rogue Theatre, with a chuckle. “Our audience wants us to do the plays that we want to do. So we have to keep doing the plays we want to do– not the plays that we think will sell, or that we think people want to see.”

Cynthia Meier, The Rogue’s Managing and Associate Artistic Director, added, “And they really are plays that we want to see and that we want to work on. We keep this ongoing, long list of plays and we’ll look at it throughout the year and say, you know, it’s about time we did Brecht. Or, it’s about time we did this play. And these are plays that we want to see and spend time with.”

This season is focused on stories about obsession; it will have shows that make you think, make you laugh, make you cry, and — if they do their job right — make you reconsider how you look at a piece of literature or a cultural phenomenon.

The Rogue is generally known for doing classic pieces. For example, they do a Shakespeare play every season. “It’s a touchstone for us. Our mission is doing challenging pieces of great literature in an ensemble way; Shakespeare is the epitome of that,” Meier explained. They usually do an adaptation of a novel as well, often adapted for the stage by Meier. They do plays that make you think and plays that make you feel deeply and… plays where usually at least one character dies. 

I teased McGrath and Meier about that. Meier laughed and commented that she should have done research on how many characters had died on their stage when she looked at the diversity of casting and the playwrights.

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Joe McGrath and Cynthia Meier. Photo courtesy of The Rogue Theatre.

McGrath pointed out that while it is a funny unifying theme linking The Rogue’s plays, “Death is something that makes us human and unless we’re conscious of mortality and unless we bring it up, we’re not really dealing with what is important and even what is beautiful. The brevity of life is what makes beauty. There is no precious moment without the passage. So I want to stand up for death as being a good thing. So let’s hear it for death.”

Looking at this season and the major moments that the array of plays will present, it seemed to me Moby Dick was going to be the most challenging. I had one big question. There have been gods, snakes, dogs, and a bear on the Rogue stage, but all those things are smaller or more manageable. I wanted to know how exactly they were going to present the great white whale Moby Dick. That whale. Their answer: they don’t know yet. They have ideas, but how it will actually come together is still somewhat of a puzzle. 

“The interesting thing about this enterprise is making sure that we’re doing live theatre, not doing plays that are live television,” McGrath said. “That’s one of the reasons we like to go more theatrical. It’s all in the language. Film and television don’t like to just dwell on the language without visuals.” 

Maybe that is the answer. Moby Dick is a book, adapted for the stage in this instance by Meier and Holly Griffith. While theatre is a visual medium, for McGrath and Meier it is equally as much about language. “We usually do an adaptation because we believe that great literature deserves to be heard and seen, not just silently read,” Meier said.

Aaron Shand, Holly Griffith and Hunter Hnat in the 2018-2019 season production of The Secret in the Wings. Photo by Tim Fuller, courtesy of the Rogue Theatre.

Aaron Shand, Holly Griffith and Hunter Hnat in the 2018-2019 season production of The Secret in the Wings. Photo by Tim Fuller, courtesy of the Rogue Theatre.

McGrath jumped in to add, “And the interesting thing about great literature is that it is only great literature because of the words, because of the language. We think of Moby Dick as having whales and boats and the sea but it only lives because of the way it was conjured in language.”

He mused on how the audience feels and about The Rogue offers: “I’m guessing that a good percentage of audience members who stay after the show for the post show discussion just want us to tell them what to think. But that’s the nature of the plays we do; they don’t tell you what to think, they leave you grappling.”

The whole season is listed online and below, including a summer production. Come to see how they get a whale in a theatre, but come more to see how you relate to the whale; what your obsessions are and how they have shaped you. Season tickets start at $195.00 and single tickets can be purchased during the run of the show for $42.00 (preview performances are $32.00) with $15.00 student rush tickets available fifteen minutes before the show (depending on availability). Tickets for the summer performance of Middletown are $38.00.

The Rogue Theatre’s 2019-2020 Season:

Middletown by Will Eno (Summer Production)
July 11 – 21, 2019
Metaphysical musings on life and death bubble up from the “common folk” on the streets of contemporary Middletown, USA. Comic and prosaic lives show cracks of poetic existential despair. Directed by Christopher Johnson.

Long Day’s Journey into Night by Eugene O’Neill
September 12 – 29, 2019
A masterful image of a day in the Tyrone household, struggling with alcoholism, morphine addiction, and regret, as they reflect on love, dreams, and roads not taken. One of the most lauded of American plays, this deeply personal play received both the Tony Award for Best Play and a Pulitzer Prize. Directed by Cynthia Meier.

Blithe Spirit by Noël Coward
November 7 – 24, 2019
The novelist Charles Condomine invites the spiritualist Madame Arcati to hold a séance in his home. Arcati inadvertently summons the ghost of Charles’ first wife, Elvira, who Charles can see, but his present wife, Ruth, can’t. A jealous ghost, Elvira tries to upset the marriage. Directed by Joseph McGrath.

Moby Dick by Herman Melville, adapted by Cynthia Meier and Holly Griffith
January 9 – 26, 2020
The obsessed Captain Ahab assembles a whaling crew to pursue the albino sperm whale, Moby Dick, that took his leg in a prior voyage. Regarded by many as the great American novel, Moby Dick is Homeric, biblical, and Shakespearean in its breadth of expression. Directed by Cynthia Meier.

The Beauty Queen of Leenane by Martin McDonagh
February 27 – March 15, 2020
In a rural Irish cottage of the aging Mag and her spinster daughter Maureen, their comic and appalling lives are brought to a head as a romance develops for Maureen that Mag resents. Directed by Christopher Johnson.

Twelfth Night by William Shakespeare
April 23 – May 10, 2020
The shipwrecked Viola dresses as a boy for protection and is employed by Duke Orsino to woo Olivia for him. Olivia falls in love with Viola-in-disguise and Viola herself falls in love with Orsino. Meanwhile, the pranksters of Olivia’s household dupe the puritan Malvolio into falling in love with Olivia. Directed by Joseph McGrath.

The John and Joyce Ambruster Play-Reading Series:

Enemy of the People by Henrik Ibsen
October 6, 2019, 2:00 pm
The story of a man who dares to speak an unpalatable truth and the devastating consequences.

Madagascar by J. T. Rogers
December 1, 2019, 2:00 pm
At three different periods in time, three Americans find themselves in a hotel room overlooking the Spanish Steps in Rome confronting the haunting mystery that connects them.

Molly Sweeney by Brian Friel
February 2, 2020, 2:00pm
Told in a riveting series of monologues, a blind woman living in Donegal, Ireland undergoes a revolutionary operation to restore her sight.

The House of Bernarda Alba by Federico Garcia Lorca
March 22, 2020, 2:00pm
Following the funeral of Bernarda Alba’s second husband, the tyrannical matriarch announces to her five daughters that their period of mourning will last eight years.

Editor’s Note: This is the forth in a series of interviews with creative decision makers and artistic directors at all of Tucson’s theatres as we look forward to the 2019-2020 season. 

There’s Nothing Neutral in This Switzerland

by Betsy Labiner

Sarah Macmillan as Patricia Highsmith. Photo by Whitney Morton Woodcock, courtesy of Something Something Theatre.

Sarah Macmillan as Patricia Highsmith. Photo by Whitney Morton Woodcock, courtesy of Something Something Theatre.

Switzerland, by Joanna Murray-Smith, is a dark comedy with razor sharp commentary on literature, creativity, and society – and it isn’t shy about pressing that razor to the audience’s throat. With this play, Something Something Theatre and director Whitney Morton Woodcock delve into the complicated life and legacy of author Patricia Highsmith, who penned psychological thrillers such as The Talented Mr. Ripley (and its four sequels) and Strangers on a Train. The play goes beyond one woman’s work, though; it questions authorial power and literary impact, as well as the institutions producing, publishing, and reviewing books. What’s more, it questions the basic nature of the self and of humanity, challenging notions of reflection and knowledge, good and evil, and growth and change.

The play is a taut, close look at Highsmith (played by Sarah Macmillan) as she struggles to write one more Ripley novel: one final, triumphant success. Edward Ridgeway (played by Damian Garcia) arrives, sent by Highsmith’s publisher with instructions to ensure that the cash cow produces to their satisfaction. Highsmith and Ridgeway engage in a battle of wits and wills, flinging venomous verbal volleys at one another as they prod each other for weaknesses to exploit. They fluctuate between conspiratorial camaraderie and threats both subtle and overt as the future of Tom Ripley hangs in the balance.

Macmillan and Garcia have a strong rapport, building ever-increasing tension as the play progresses. The play ruminates on reading and writing, repeatedly casting the author as a god whose words create worlds and people. The audience is presented with the long-vaunted notion of authorial immortality through their works, but simultaneously reminded of the misogyny of the American literary fraternity. Highsmith sneers at the praise given to other authors and rails at the dismissive or damning critiques of her work. Avid readers and literary buffs in particular will appreciate the metaliterary conversation, as names and allusions are tossed out alongside comments ranging from the scathing – “publishing is well-dressed pimping” – to the nearly worshipful – “The writer starts with nothing, nothing but the word.” Writing is the primary focus, as Highsmith struggles to match her earlier successes, but the banter also questions the connections forged through books, emphasizing the inherent human engagement in sharing stories, even as the audience is reminded that, while a reader might feel an overwhelming connection to an author or character, that connection runs only in one direction.

As the play dissects the act of creative production, from an author’s idea all the way through a publisher’s printing, it also investigates the makeup of people and their society. Highsmith is a cynical, racist, bigot who eagerly looks for the worst in people, dreaming up death and violence and taking delight in guns, knives, and poison. At one point, she asserts, “If you put two people in a room together and their true selves emerge, only one of them is going to make it.” Ridgeway calls out Highsmith on her ugliness and meanness, briefly championing social progress and change, even as he himself moves along the spectrum of (a)morality. The characters’ slipperiness is challenging, as the audience is forced to ponder whether we like or loathe these people, as we find ourselves alternately laughing and cringing at their banter. We’re also forced to reckon with the question of whether we have, in fact, moved beyond the ignorance derided by Ridgeway, as well as the thorny issue of how we, as contemporary consumers, interact with literature or art produced by people with problematic or even abhorrent views.

Damian Garcia as Edward Ridgeway and Sarah Macmillan as Patricia Highsmith. Photo by Whitney Morton Woodcock, courtesy of Something Something Theatre.

Damian Garcia as Edward Ridgeway and Sarah Macmillan as Patricia Highsmith. Photo by Whitney Morton Woodcock, courtesy of Something Something Theatre.

Macmillan and Garcia are strong actors and play off each other well, pairing the often-rapid conversation with intense physical presence; it’s remarkable how much they convey in their postures and invasions of each other’s space. Their shifting dynamic is utterly engaging, and the simmering pressure keeps the audience wondering not only if and when the knife will slash out, but whose blood will be drawn when it does.

The set, designed by Marchus Lewis, is a shrine to literature and death. Books and weapons line the shelves, while swords, masks, and skulls adorn the walls. Every item speaks to the action and themes of the play and feels provocatively deliberate. So too are the costumes, particularly Garcia’s, which speak volumes over the progress of the action. The costuming was designed by the actors themselves, with minimal input from the director.

The tightly-paced plot unfolds like one of Highsmith’s own thrillers, with clues and red herrings leading up to the climactic finale. In the final moments of the play, an audience member nearby breathed out a heartfelt “What the f*ck” as the scene closed out.

Whether you see the twists coming or not, going to Switzerland is one darkly fun trip you’ll want to take.

Switzerland runs April 25th through May 12th at St. Francis in the Foothills (4625 E. River Road). Tickets may be purchased online at somethingsomethingtheatre.com or by phone at 520-468-6111.