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.

A Good Death and a Good Time in Hall of Final Ruin

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.

Guillermo Francisco Raphael Jones as Doña Sebastiana and Rosanne Couston as La Tules. Photo by Whitney Morton Woodcock, courtesy of Something Something Theatre.

Guillermo Francisco Raphael Jones as Doña Sebastiana and Rosanne Couston as La Tules. Photo by Whitney Morton Woodcock, courtesy of Something Something Theatre.

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.

Cisiany Olivar as Pilar, Rosanne Couston as La Tules, Guillermo Francisco Raphael Jones as Doña Sebastiana, Amàlia Mora as Carmelita, and Nathalie Rodriguez as Rallitos. Photo by Whitney Morton Woodcock, courtesy of Something Something Theatre.

Cisiany Olivar as Pilar, Rosanne Couston as La Tules, Guillermo Francisco Raphael Jones as Doña Sebastiana, Amàlia Mora as Carmelita, and Nathalie Rodriguez as Rallitos. Photo by Whitney Morton Woodcock, courtesy of Something Something Theatre.

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.

A Love Story Told in (Multi)verse

by Leigh Moyer

Billed as “a dreamlike story of love and quantum physics,” Something Something Theatre’s production of Constellations did not disappoint. We’re reminded, through the short lives of honey bees, the impossible incongruities of macro physics and quantum mechanics, and our own life experiences, that every experience, if nothing else, has potential.

Constellations, photo by James Pack.

Damian Garcia as Roland and Bailey Renee as Marianne. Photo by James Pack, courtesy of Something Something Theatre.

Constellations, by playwright Nick Payne, follows the story of Roland (Damian Garcia) and Marianne (Bailey Renee) as they fall in love. It also follows the story where they don’t fall in love. And the one where they fall in love, fall out of love, and fall back in love. Inspired by the physicist Brian Greene’s 1999 book and subsequent documentary detailing the conflicts between the physics of the massive and quantum mechanics though string theory and the theory of multiverses, Constellations plays with the idea that every love story could also be a story of a missed connection. In an interview included in the program, Payne explains, “By chance I watched a documentary called The Elegant Universe by Brian Greene and it was amazing. It was a history of contemporary theoretical physics and right at the end he touched on this idea of the multiverse.”
The idea of the multiverse is that for every decision we make or don’t make, there is another universe that is exactly the same except the opposite decision is made, or not. This idea is used to full effect in this play, which in its ninety minutes details maybe six scenes, told again and again with slight differences and with slight changes that have big consequences for Roland and Marianne.
Payne uses this device to tell a bigger story. As each new version of a scene played out I found myself rooting for the happily-ever-after that some variations offered, while simultaneously dreading the repeated and unforgiving failure we all experience so often in love and life. But more than showing how an interaction could play out, Payne is putting the audience in the sometimes murky, often frustrating position of not being able to find the right words, something that becomes a key part (and the only unchanging piece) of the story.
Both Garcia and Renee are impressive as they say and resay lines without losing the core of the characters you have come to care about. They had a strong ability to hold onto who their character clearly is, even while playing back-to-back scenes with very different emotions. I can’t imagine what this script looks like, but Garcia and Renee take it and instead of making a joke of the characters’ lives, especially in the versions that can’t seem to help but make the wrong decisions, both actors live their characters. Every variation feels believable and extremely, even at times painfully, relatable.
The stage is simply dressed and this serves the show well. The point isn’t where the characters are, but rather what they say and how they say it. Director Joan O’Dwyer uses the actors’ positions on the stage to give the audience clues about how a scene will play out even before they start, giving us just enough insight to feel like we’re a part of the choices Roland and Marianne make.

Constellations, photo by Whitney Morton Woodcock

Photo by Whitney Morton Woodcock, courtesy of Something Something Theatre.

While the two characters portray heteronormative relationships, I was thrilled that Marianne is not only the scientist of the pair, but holds her own in situations that all too frequently paint female characters as damsels in distress. I expect nothing less from Something Something Theatre. This is the only play written by a man in their lineup this season and I would be shocked to see anything but strong women on their stage.
Like the way a constellation in the night sky is familiar and almost not worth noticing, a straightforward love story on the stage loses its grasp on attention; but looking at that same constellation in a darker sky, lost among countless other stars, becomes interesting, a love story told a hundred times, slightly different each time, is greater than its component parts.
Constellations runs through December 23rd. Shows are at 7:30pm on Friday and Saturday, and 2:00pm on Sunday at Community Playhouse (1881 N. Oracle Road). Tickets are available at somethingsomethingtheatre.com or by phone at 468-6111.

Men on Boats, A must see season opener!

by Gabriella De Brequet

Men on Boats

Hannah Taylor as Powell, Katie Burke as Bradley, Analiese Bloom as Hawkins, and the cast of Men on Boats. Photo by Whitney Morton Woodcock, courtesy of Something Something Theatre.

Men on Boats is a genderbent semi-historical comedy about John Wesley Powell’s 1863 expedition to map the the Colorado River’s passage through the Grand Canyon with ten explorers, four boats, and slim rations. I was delighted to discover that not only is the playwright a woman (Jaclyn Backhaus), but Something Something’s production is directed by a woman (Jasmine Roth), stage managed by a woman (Shannon Harral), production designed by a woman (Madeline Greenwalt), and all of the characters are intentionally written to be played by trans or cis women! In reading the notes on the playwright I discovered that Backhaus included a casting note into her play instructing directors to cast racially diverse actresses who are cisgender or female identifying. As a queer person myself, I felt safe in the room I was sitting in, and I felt proud to be supporting a queer friendly theatre in Tucson.

The play follows ten explorers on four boats as they battle with each other and the elements to serve the United States government. The stakes are high and they struggle to get along with each other in close quarters and to find basic resources on their journey. The play deals with themes such as doubt, fear, and loyalty and friendship. There were some incredibly strong performances from some ensemble members. Maryann Green’s Dunn was particularly compelling. She took the stakes very seriously, and even when she wasn’t speaking, her subtext was clear. Kimberly Swanson’s Old Shady was incredibly lovable. Timea Post’s Hall and Analiese Bloom’s Hawkins were a perfect comedy duo, and Christine Peterson’s Goodman and Hannah Taylor’s Powell were strong and poignant.

Although there were some great performances from individual actors, I felt that the ensemble as a whole could have been a little more connected to each other. I found this to be a hiccup for the ensemble when the stakes were intended to be high. While some actors took the moments of danger in the boats and at camp seriously, some others did not. This ultimately made it more difficult for me to connect to the drama unfolding. I wish there had been more of a juxtaposition between the comedy and the drama throughout. Often the comedy was played through the danger and it didn’t quite serve the play.

The action in the boats happened downstage and into the audience, breaking the fourth wall to bring us into the narrative. This staging challenged the modern audience’s viewing experience, was fun to watch, and worked incredibly well for the structure of the play. I felt that there were some missed opportunities with the scene changes. The scene changes were done in black out, and in such a small space with that many props it would have been great to watch the characters help each other out of their boats and congratulate each other on a successful journey instead of watching actors stumble in a blackout.

The set design was simple, clear, and effective. The camp site set was made up of spare windows and spare wood pieced together to create a makeshift home. The props were great for practicality, stage business, and for setting the scene, and the lighting design worked well to create a distinction between the camps, and action in the boats. The technical elements worked well together to set the mood and support the play. Men on Boats is an incredibly well written play and I had a ton of fun watching it! This production is a huge victory for Something Something Theatre. Men on Boats is an exciting must see and a perfect season opener for Something Something Theatre!

Men on Boats runs through October 28 at the Cabaret Theatre at the Temple of Music and Arts. Tickets are $20 for students and seniors and $25 for general admission. You can purchase tickets on Something Something Theatre’s website somethingsomethingtheatre.com or by calling their box office at 520-468-6111.