Wit, One-Liners, and Mystery Make for a Pretty Killer Play

by Holly Griffith

Arizona Rose Theatre’s production of Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Nile has all the staples of a good British detective story: colorful suspects, wry wit, and most importantly, a puzzle of motives. The story takes place aboard a cruise on the Nile River. A love triangle between the wealthy Kay Ridgeway (Diana Ouradnik), her new husband Simon Mostyn (John Reimann), and his ex-lover Jacqueline de Severac (Michele Holland) motivates most of the action. Simon and Kay are on their honeymoon, and the jealous Jacqueline has followed them, appearing unexpectedly to ruin their romance. When Kay is murdered in her bed one night, all fingers are pointed at Jacqueline. Kay’s uncle, Canon Ambrose Pennefather (Michael Shipione) serves as the detective, and he discovers that things are not as they seem.

The cast of Murder on the Nile. Photo courtesy of Arizona Rose Theatre.

The cast of Murder on the Nile. Photo courtesy of Arizona Rose Theatre.

First-time director Ron Kari achieves that delicate balance required of a murder mystery—planting clues subtly enough that we can’t quite put them together immediately, but clearly enough that we remember them when all is revealed. No spoilers, but this cast does a great job of throwing us off the scent. Stephanie Howell’s earnest innocence as Christine and Ouradnik’s measured elegance as Kay are particularly solid performances. Holland as Jackie and Leah Kari as Miss ffoliot-ffolkes [spelled correctly!] add some juice to the production—both actors bring the villainy without being too over-the-top. With its twists and turns and witty one-liners, this play is just plain fun.

At times, a sharper pace would have helped the production a great deal. While the mystery plot is negotiated masterfully, a few comic moments fall flat, and some of the suspense is squeezed out by a tempered pace. Speed would achieve two major things for this story. First, it would let some of the jokes really smack us in the face—in a good way. Second, it would cause the audience to sit on the edge of their chairs and follow the action with more energy. If an audience is asked to keep up, rather than merely follow along, the whole room is infused with excitement.

A word of praise for costumer Leah Rosthenhausler. The costumes are multitudinous — many characters have multiple outfits, complete with hats and accessories. Garments are period-appropriate without looking dusty, extremely well fitting, flattering, and expensive-looking. The actors all looked comfortable and confident. The set by Ruben Rosthenhausler, Luke Howell, and Mike Howell is functional and richly dressed. However, I found the moving video of the exterior landscape somewhat distracting. While realistic, it didn’t quite fit, especially in the world of 1940’s Egypt. The creativity is commendable, but I’m not sure that the idea worked in this instance.

I’d like to address the question of racial stereotype in this production. Agatha Christie wrote the first version of this story in 1937 and adapted it for the stage in 1944. Christie’s depiction of Egyptians is not particularly progressive, even for its time. She writes the two Egyptian bead merchants as pushy and money-hungry, a nuisance for the proper English passengers trying to board their riverboat. This depiction alone is problematic, but I was disappointed to see two white actors cast in the roles. Their over-the-top accents and wacky personalities bordered on minstrelsy. I was relieved to see that they didn’t figure prominently in the rest of the play, but I wondered if those characters could have been cut altogether. They didn’t add much to the plot or even to the atmosphere, and instead made me cringe. The other Egyptian character, a steward aboard the boat, is also played by a white actor. While the steward character isn’t nearly as problematic, I wish Arizona Rose had found an actor of Arab or North African heritage to play the role.  The actor did a fine job, but it felt like a missed opportunity to hire an actor of color.

This whole scenario begs the question—how do companies deal with playwrights whose prejudices reflect their time? Do we refuse to produce their works? Do we edit their works to reflect more progressive values? Do we produce them fully to remind our audiences that these ugly prejudices are a real part of our history? Shakespeare is racist too, remember. How do we deal? I don’t have an answer, and if I did, it would probably change from production to production, story to story, but I think the most important things are discussions within the company, among the cast and creative team, and with audiences—and an earnest attempt to get it right.

While I hope for more sensitivity regarding depictions of race in the future, I enjoyed this production, and I appreciate Arizona Rose Theatre’s mission to produce works that are positive and accessible. The company did a fine job of staging a murder mystery, and I’m looking forward to returning to see other productions.

Murder on the Nile runs through June 16th at Arizona Rose Theatre located in the Tucson Mall on the lower level near Macy’s. Tickets can be purchased by calling (520) 888-0509 or visiting www.arizonarosetheatre.com.

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.

Ensemble Storytelling Bring Emotion and Experience to Life in Curious Incident

by China Young

Ryan Parker Knox as Ed and Hunter Hnat as Christopher. Photo by Tim Fuller, courtesy of The Rogue Theatre.

Ryan Parker Knox as Ed and Hunter Hnat as Christopher. Photo by Tim Fuller, courtesy of The Rogue Theatre.

All actors remain on stage unless prescribed otherwise. This is one of very few scripted stage directions in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. Cynthia Meier, the director of The Rogue’s novel-inspired production, noted that she took that one to heart. In doing so, Meier and her ensemble of 10 performers sculpt a simple and genuine theatrical experience layered with complexity. This is a production that emphasizes the powerful storytelling potential of a well-trained ensemble in lieu of elaborate spectacle.
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time is the story of a young man, Christopher, who takes on a detective role in effort to uncover the mystery behind who killed his neighbor’s dog. As can happen when sleuthing, he discovers much more than he could have imagined.
This detective story is unique from others: Christopher is autistic. While autism expresses differently for different people, in this production it is his ability to interact with others that is most evidently affected. Put simply, Christopher’s social communication skills are not in alignment with societal standards. Told from his perspective, the audience can experience Christopher’s world as he does. The ensemble introduces this quality at the top of the show by disrupting the audience’s sense of normal. Christopher’s teacher and mentor, Sioban, played by Patty Gallagher, delivers dialogue that doesn’t seem to belong to her while the rest of the ensemble re-enacts memories and thoughts from Christopher’s mind. All this occurs while performer Hunter Hnat, who plays Christopher, masterfully embodies every word and action taking place around him, occasionally stepping into the scene of a memory, but only speaking when he’s commenting on his version of what’s happening. This disembodied introduction also establishes that this is a story Christopher wrote and is sharing with the audience.
Throughout the production, the ensemble enhances the experience of what it’s like to be Christopher, whether that means amplifying his emotional state, creating his environment, or portraying the people he interacts with. They disrupt other theatrical norms as they become the set, the props, and ingeniously facilitate the sound design and scene shifts. It’s a work of true collaboration that I appreciated immeasurably.

Holly Griffith as Judy and Hunter Hnat as Christopher. Photo by Tim Fuller, courtesy of The Rogue Theatre.

Holly Griffith as Judy and Hunter Hnat as Christopher. Photo by Tim Fuller, courtesy of The Rogue Theatre.

Because it was such an ensemble-based show (With an equal gender distribution I might add!), it’s hard to single anyone out. Even so, Hnat as Christopher was inarguably outstanding in the role. His journey of emotional shifts within the autistic lens were raw, instinctive, and credible. Gallagher as Sioban brought warmth and gentleness that counteracted Christopher’s occasionally harsh bluntness. Ryan Parker Knox and Holly Griffith, who portrayed Christopher’s parents Ed and Judy, both brought depth to their characters as they balance the trials of parenting a child with autism and fulfilling their individual needs as human beings. I was equally as impressed with their ability to slip back into the ensemble without fixating on the named characters they played.
The remainder of the cast shifted in and out of secondary characters with similar ease and finesse. Kathryn Kellner Brown rises slightly above the rest with her presentation of Mrs. Alexander, an elderly neighbor that Christopher becomes better acquainted with through his detective work. For me, one of the most memorable moments of her performance was watching Mrs. Alexander walk in front of the stage and the moment she took the first step to rejoin the ensemble onstage, Mrs. Alexander completely disappeared, leaving just Ensemble Voice 6. Samantha Cormier also deserves honorable mention with the deft comedic timing executed during her brief moments as Julie, another one of Christopher’s teachers. These performers are incredibly skilled in their abilities to jump in and out of character and doing so all without leaving the stage further elevates their professional dexterity.
Honestly, I cannot praise the cast enough for the trust they have for one another that inevitably translates into the vulnerability they have with the audience. It’s incredibly refreshing to see this kind of work being done in Tucson and I hope more companies and performers embrace its power in the future.
Meier and her creative team definitely deserve applause for the level of artistry applied to this production. Some of that ensemble work wouldn’t be as impressive without the complimentary lighting effects and the 9 boxes that are utilized throughout as seating, storage, and more tangible amplifications of Christopher. If my descriptions seem vague, it’s because curiosity should get ahold of you and you should make every effort to see this production.
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time runs at The Rogue Theatre Theatre November 1st through 18th. Thursday, Friday, and Saturday nights at 7:30; Saturday and Sunday afternoons at 2:00. You can buy tickets online at theroguetheatre.org or by calling 551-2053.

Hijinks, Hilarity, and Homicide in Death by Design at Live Theatre Workshop

by Vaune Suitt

Live Theater Workshop continues their mainstage productions with their fourth show of the season, Death by Design by Rob Urbinati. This brilliant comedy puts a spin on a typical murder mystery play and charms and surprises audience members until the end.

Death by Design cast

The cast of Death by Design. Photo by Ryan Fagan, courtesy of Live Theatre Workshop.

Death by Design is set in 1932 on a country estate in England. The show revolves around a chaotic, kooky, and unconventional married couple, Edward, an aging playwright, and Sorel, a popular actress, who retreat to their countryside home after a failed opening night. Things begin to go awry, though, when Sorel invites a British politician over, and unexpected guests begin to appear. When a murder takes place, it is the job of all of the guests to figure out who committed the crime, with the help of the couple’s housemaid, Bridget, who tries to solve the crime on her own.

Death by Design

Rhonda Hallquist as Bridget and Johnathan Heras as Jack in Death by Design. Photo by Ryan Fagan, courtesy of Live Theatre Workshop.

For a play set in the 1930s, I expected the worst in terms of gender roles and representation of the female characters. Although the struggle for women’s rights in England was not as drawn out and grueling as in the United States, women in England still had to wait far too long before they were given the right to vote in 1918 and full suffrage in 1928. To my surprise, though, this cast of four women and four men all had creative and bold characters, especially the women. In a time where women answered to men, the female characters in this show do the exact opposite. Even though the gender ratio between male and women is equal in this play, the women shine from beginning to end. The play starts off with the Irish housemaid, Bridget, played by Rhonda Hallquist, charming the audience with her wit and hilarious defiance of her employers and their guests. This housemaid seems to give more orders than she takes and carries herself in a strong manner. She proves to be the most competent detective of the story. The couple, Edward and Sorel, played by Christopher Moseley and Missie Scheffman, are a hilarious married couple far from in love. In one of the first scenes we hear Edward and his chauffeur, Jack, played by Jonathan Heras, discussing how he pushed his wife down the stairs. This at first came as an upset, only to find that the wife brought it on in the first place. Scheffman’s Sorel is complex and funny, and is well played as a very glamorous and vain woman with a hankering for disaster.
The politician, Walter Pierce, played by Michael F. Woodson, feels very relevant for a character from a 1930s English play–a capitalist who accepts an invite from Sorel to her country estate to begin an affair. With how familiar this country is with rich politicians that cheat on their wives and take funding away from things that matter, this feels very current to 2018.
The couple and their houseworkers, along with their unexpected guests each carry their own distinct persona that captures the audience’s attention. I was very impressed with the cast members’ ability to carry their dialects throughout the show, which made it feel all the more realistic. Alongside the phenomenal cast of actors, Jason Jamerson’s set was colorful, detailed, and interesting, and made the play feel even more like a two hour trip to England. The actors used the small space they were given well and the direction by Roberto Guarjardo was very physical and lent itself well to the dialogue and comedic timing. The lighting by Richard Gremel, though it was simple, did not take away from the show and did a good job of adding mystery to the murder scene. Brian McElroy’s sound elements added to the play and were accurate and realistic. Being a first time audience member of Live Theater Workshop, I definitely plan on returning and seeing what more the company has to offer.
Death by Design runs through November 17 at Live Theater Workshop. Tickets are $15 for the general public and can be purchased online at livetheaterworkshop.org, by phone at 520-327-4242, or in person. Live Theater Workshop is located at 5317 E Speedway Blvd. Tucson, AZ 85712.