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“Of Mice and Men”: Putting Autism Into the Equation

Michael Paul Levin

Several years ago, Artistic Director Richard Cook saw a production of Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men in Spain. It gave him new insight into Lennie, the big man-child whom migrant worker George takes under his wings, and ultimately led to the recasting of Michael Paul Levin as George in Park Square Theatre’s version of Of Mice and Men that has been performed intermittently since 1998.

Artistic Director Richard Cook

According to Richard, “Lennie in the Spanish production was clearly high on the autism spectrum. The actor portrayed the character as always in motion, swaying and shifting back and forth. He physicalized the role in such a big way as to make it obvious to us watching the show why George needed to protect Lennie.

When I returned from Spain, I wanted to revisit the show and do a fresh production. I reopened casting and re-auditioned all the roles. Michael had landed on my short list from the audition process. When I spent time reading with and talking to him, I knew he had the capacity to do great dramatic work. He was also raising a child with autism so living with a loved one who needs special attention–just like George with Lennie. I wondered if Michael would be interested in mining that territory and willing to invest in that point of view as a great way to explore why that relationship exists. Michael was brave and generous to say yes,”

Lennie (E. J. Subkoviak) and George (Michael Paul Levin) camp by the river for the evening
(Photo by Petronella J. Ytsma)

What we witness on stage with each performance, as a result, is a deeply personal and honest portrayal of George that makes the poignant dynamic between George and Lennie that much more potent.

Michael reflected, “Richard wasn’t a director trying to shoehorn his own impressions into the play. It made a lot of sense going back to read the source and seeing how close it hit home. How Steinbeck describes Lennie and how he behaves suggests Steinbeck’s trying to describe autism without having the words for it.”

In the play, George refers to Lennie as “a crazy bastard” or “you crazy son-of-a-bitch.” We also learn about Lennie’s preoccupation with soft things and compulsion to repeatedly stroke them, such as his incessant petting of mice and puppies or a woman’s satiny skirt or hair.

George (Michael Paul Levin) demands that Lennie (E. J. Subkoviak) hand over a dead mouse
(Photo by Connie Shaver)

Lennie isn’t retarded or stupid,” Michael continued. “Steinbeck uses words like ‘crazy’ to mean that Lennie has idiosyncratic behaviors.”

However, before the 1940s, the concept of autism was indeed associated with mental retardation and, in 1910, with schizophrenia by Swiss psychiatrist Eugen Bleuler, who coined the word “autismus.” In 1943, Leo Kanner of the John Hopkins Hospital first used “autism” in its modern sense when he introduced the term “early infantile autism”; in 1944, Hans Asperger of the Vienna University Hospital introduced the term “Asperger’s syndrome.” In 1949, the term “refrigerator mothers” was derived from a false theory that autism was caused by a cold mothering style that resulted in psychological harm to their children. In 1964, Bernard Rimland, the father of an autistic son, provided the first solid arguments of autism as a biological condition and founded the Autism Society of America to counter the Refrigerator Mother Theory.

Lennie (E. J. Subkoviak) and George (Michael Paul Levine) settle into the bunkhouse at the ranch where Candy (Patrick O’Brien) also works
(Photo by Petronella J. Ytsma)

It wasn’t until 1980 when autism was officially differentiated from childhood schizophrenia in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders-Third Edition (DSM-III); 1987 when “autistic disorder” replaced “infantile autism” in the DSM-III-R, which finally provided a checklist for diagnosing autism; 1991 when schools began to identify and serve autistic children in special education; and 1994 when Asperger’s syndrome was added to the DSM-IV. In 2013, the DSM-V replaced all the prior jargon with the more general term of “Autism Spectrum Disorders” (ASD).

“Autism awareness has come so far,” said Michael Paul Levin. In fact, he and his wife, Stacey Dinner-Levin, also had a hand in raising autism awareness in 2007 when Autistic License, Stacey’s autobiographical play about bringing up an autistic child, was produced by Illusion Theater. It starred Michael as their son Geordy. Autistic License was named one of the best plays of 2007 by the Pioneer Press.

“As a parent raising a child with autism, you’re often silenced, overlooked or misrepresented. Stacey’s play was an honest portrayal of what it’s like,” Michael said. “She suggested that I play our son. I did it because I couldn’t think of any other actor who could do it. It was very healing for my family to see what we went through and for friends and relatives to see what our lives were like.”

Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men will certainly tug at your heartstrings, but even more so from knowing how much of himself Michael has personally put into each performance.

 

Sources: projectautism.org/history-of-autism and en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Autism

Tickets and more information at HERE

Patrick O’Brien: Of Candy, Dogs and Men

Patrick O’Brien plays the old ranch worker, Candy, in John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men at Park Square. Candy has lost his right hand in an accident and fears for the time when he will be deemed useless, like his ancient dog. Recently, I got to ask Patrick about his thoughts about Candy, dogs and Of Mice and Men as well as his actor’s background. Here’s what he had to say:

What goes through your mind as you prepare to play Candy? Oh, not that much, really. I’m not much for a lot of actor exercises and the like. Just check my props and run my lines in my head of couple times. I purposefully don’t hang out in the green room once the show starts, though. I’d rather stay close backstage and listen. I still have nightmares about a certain missed entrance years ago.

Having watched Of Mice and Men as a student matinee usher, I can attest to the fact that it’s one of the most emotionally wrenching plays to watch over and over again. As an actor on the other side of the stage, what is it like for you to do the show repeatedly? And how do you feel by the end of each performance? Well, my character certainly doesn’t have the wrenching experience that George has, but Candy does have his own tragedy. Most of the cast gathers backstage for the final scene and curtain call, and you don’t have to look far to see tears on castmates’ faces.

So the dressing room afterward and the trip back home are often pretty somber. It definitely stays with you.

A scene from Of Mice and Men; Patrick as Candy is seated next to Boo, the pit bull who plays Candy’s dog
(Photo by Petronella J. Ytsma)

What happens to Candy’s dog is key to the play. Do you or have you own(ed) a dog or another kind of pet?  Yeah, we have a dog, Domino, who happens to be half border collie, so he’ll make a great Candy’s Dog in about three or four years.

And our previous dog, Sal, a smart golden retriever, had some stage time with me in Two Gentlemen of Verona. We had a great bit: My character was setting off on a journey; and as I exited, I would leave behind a shoe and old Sal would bark, grab the shoe in her mouth and come running off after me. Brought the house down every show.

How did you end up becoming an actor? Start from the very beginning! Fifth grade. Being an altar boy. I loved it! The mass was quite a show back then. You had all the trappings of theater: costume, lines, props, blocking, an audience; the priest as the star of the show. And, of course, the almighty reviewer above.

I grew up in Eau Claire, a pretty small town; and there were no children’s or community theater back then, so there weren’t any opportunities for acting outside of the occasional classroom skit or presentation in grade school (for which I would always volunteer). High school offered more opportunities, and I was involved in whatever shows were available. I squeezed in doing a few shows in my early years of college at University of Wisconsin – Eau Claire, which had a pretty good no-nonsense theater department.  But I wasn’t getting cast all that much, and I certainly wasn’t entertaining the idea of trying to make a go of acting professionally.

I was a small-town boy and had no desire to leave Eau Claire. I kept putting off declaring my major and was considering teaching special education when I got cast in the plum role of Kit Carson in The Time of Your Life, and something clicked. The director, who was my advisor at the time, suggested I go to grad school for acting. But by then, I was tired of school–it took me six years to graduate; I worked my way through–so I finally declared a theater major and, after graduating, just started auditioning in “The Cities.” I met Jack Reuler while doing a show at Theatre in the Round Players, and he started casting me in show after show at the newly established Mixed Blood Theatre. For the first time, it seemed possible to do this full time. I haven’t had an honest job since.

From left to rt.: E.J Subkoviak as Lennie, Michael Paul Levin as George and Patrick O’Brien as Candy in Of Mice and Men
(Photo by Petronella J. Ytsma)

Despite Candy’s somber circumstances, he still dares to hope. What do you hope for in your life? Well, by play’s end, Candy’s hopes are pretty much dashed. His future is reduced to one of staving off being “put on the county” for as long as he can.

But I’ve always been a guy with fairly modest hopes. At my age, I find myself bargaining with the universe over how many more trips around the sun I might be able to enjoy. And how many years I’ll still be able to memorize lines. (And there are those nagging revenge fantasies; but this is not the time or place.)

What do you think Of Mice and Men has to say to today’s audiences? The title, Of Mice and Men, is taken from a poem by Robert Burns: “…the best laid schemes o’ mice and men often go awry.” And, as in most of Steinbeck’s works, those plans go awry much for the worse. Steinbeck was no optimist. It was the depths of the great depression, and Steinbeck pulled no punches when writing about the plight of the down and outs of society.

American society is certainly in many ways better off than in the 1930s, but we as a nation still enable too wide a chasm between the haves and the have-nots. But Steinbeck doesn’t just blame “the system” for this disparity. He indicts his down-and-outs and their inhumanity toward each other with their cruel pecking order on the ranch. They’re as guilty as “the system” for their bleak situation. (And interestingly, Robert Burns also originated the phrase “man’s inhumanity to man” in his poem Man was made to mourn: A Dirge.)

A lot of the themes in Of Mice and Men are fleshed out in Steinbeck’s masterpiece (and my #1 favorite novel), The Grapes of Wrath, which he wrote two years after Of Mice and Men.  His politics are more overt and, although I think it’s a stretch to call him a communist, he certainly was advocating a more egalitarian society in which government should take a forceful role in reducing the inequality inherent in capitalism.

Steinbeck’s main goal was to arouse our sense of empathy. He wrote: ”I’ve done my damnedest to rip a reader’s nerves to rags.” Are there any endings of stories that “rip a reader’s nerves to rags” more than Of Mice and Men and The Grapes of Wrath?

E. J. Subkoviak on Playing Lennie in “Of Mice and Men”

This season, John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men returns to Park Square Theatre as a new production on the intimate Andy Boss Thrust Stage with limited performances for general audience from November 9 to December 16. Of Mice and Men will also be seen by school groups during student matinees.

Playing the large but childlike Lennie, who is highly dependent on his fellow migrant worker friend George due to a mental disability, is E. J. Subkoviak. Here is E. J. to tell us more about himself and his role in Of Mice and Men.

When did you first play Lennie, and what was your relationship with Steinbeck’s novel before being cast as Lennie?

Like a lot of people, Of Mice and Men was one of the first books I read in high school, and it was certainly one I never forgot, especially after reading the Cliff’s Notes. I was often asked, based on my height and basic size (exact numbers available through the costume shop), if I had ever played Lennie; and it wasn’t until about eight years ago, when Park Square was in need of a new one, that I got to play him for the first time. This will be my fourth time playing Lennie at this same theater, so I haven’t shrunk much.

George (Michael Paul Levin) and Lennie (E. J. Subkoviak) (Photo by Petronella J. Ytsma)

What’s the biggest challenge for you in playing Lennie?

A two-show day, maybe? Honestly, the character is so deeply in my blood now that it feels so easy to bring out. Maybe the first time I did it, it was somewhat of a challenge to figure out, based on each scene, what exactly his mind is doing and how it works in general; but it was all a real labor of love.

Apart from that, playing Lennie, as much as I love it and had been waiting to do it so long, is not much different of an approach than playing anything else as a character actor. The real hard part, at least in the primary story of Of Mice and Men, I’d say, is George, as is the case in most buddy stories where you have a straight man and some manner of an eccentric. The straight man rarely ever gets as much credit or attention (poor Dick Smothers), but he has a hell of a job to do in the whole relationship. And we’re blessed to have my longtime friend Michael Paul Levin in the role as he, as the father of such a child, was able to recognize in the script evidence of autism in Lennie. (The whole notion of autism, and even the word, didn’t exist back in John Steinbeck’s day.) This helped answer some of those questions about his mind and how it works even more and was of great benefit to us all. And, of course, playing out this story as a man with an autistic son is a great emotional challenge for him, and he deserves a medal for it.

What may change in your approach as a result of being on the Boss Thrust rather than the Proscenium stage with this season’s production?

The tricky part will be staging it in the thrust format of the stage with audience on three different sides, but our director, Annie Enneking, is a pro and is smartly considering and playing with these sightlines.

The good news is that the smaller space heightens the intimacy of these scenes, so the personal relationships and the danger and intensity of the piece become more magnified.

It also means less makeup for us. That’s always a relief.

E. J. (center) and other cast members in an early rehearsal in the Boss Rehearsal Hall.
(Photo by Connie Shaver)

What do you want audiences to take away from their experience of seeing Of Mice and Men? Is it different for an adult versus student audience?

I would say the basic idea of empathy, which seems to be fading fast away at this particular time in our history (just read any internet “comment” section). This is a play about mostly outcasts–outcasts trapped in a cold, harsh world and how they survive. Chances are everyone personally identifies with one or more of these outcasts, I think; and that has made this story so relatable for so long. (Even the character of Curley’s wife was fleshed out much more by Steinbeck for the play version, at the request of the play’s producer at the time.)

Achieving that empathy can be more of a challenge for a younger audience, as we’ve discovered in the past. Young people will often laugh at inappropriate times in a tragic story like this, but it doesn’t necessarily mean they find it funny; it’s often just a nervous reaction to a tense situation. (Lennie does this, too.)

How did you end up becoming an actor?

A hastily thought-out deal with the dark lord Lucifer that I’ll always regret.

Actually, my parents insisted I do something other than watch TV one summer when I was about 13, so I joined this acting troupe that traveled from park to park in my hometown of Madison, Wisconsin, and performed fairy tales, melodramas, and other family plays. Somehow, I caught the bug. Along with the mosquitoes in my mouth.

E. J. as Nero Wolfe, with Derek Dirlam as Archie Goodwin in Might as Well Be Dead
(Photo by Petronella J. Ytsma)

What have been some of your favorite roles, and what other characters do you hope to play someday?

Of course, playing the corpulent crime-fighter Nero Wolfe for Park Square has been a great honor and a fulfillment of my childhood dream of being a detective. It is flattering to be recognized by members of the Nero Wolfe “cult” when I am out and about. (As it has been explained to me: Sherlock Holmes is Star Trek; Nero Wolfe is Doctor Who. I’m very, very cool with that.)

There are a lot of roles I did in college that I’d love to replay as a (bigger) adult: Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Jonathan Brewster (the Boris Karloff role) in Arsenic and Old Lace, the ghost of John Barrymore in I Hate Hamlet and Owen the evil Klansman in The Foreigner, a true comic villain for the times we live in.

Speaking of that, and since I spent all of 2016 not acting but watching the news and getting depressed like so many of us, I have been looking for more projects I could do that deal with civil rights and other issues that are so much on our minds these days. Fortunately, Of Mice and Men qualifies in many ways, and I’m glad to be doing it again now.

Twelve evening performances through December 16. Tickets and more info at http://parksquaretheatre.org/box-office/shows/2017-18/of-mice-and-men/

 

 

 

 

. . . . And A Dog Named Boo

Boo: short for Taboo; sometimes also affectionately called Boosker Du (like the band Husker Du) (Photo by Annette Diana Design; www.Annettedianadesign.com)

In John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, performed on Park Square Theatre’s Boss Thrust Stage from November 9 to December 16, the treatment of migrant worker Candy’s dog represents how everyone in the play is afraid to be treated as well. Fortunately, Boo, who plays that dog, lives in the loving home of theatre professionals Ben McGovern and Jessie Scarborough-Ghent. Jessie is serving as his handler for this production.

It wasn’t always “the good life” for Boo. Boo is a pit bull rescued by Midwest Animal Rescue & Services in Brooklyn Park. He’d had a rough start in Indiana, being kept in a kennel that was too small for him so that his back legs couldn’t properly develop. As a result, he has a back leg limp and takes glutamine supplements. Boo also used to have a bald spot on his head from rubbing against the kennel. His docile nature suggests that he could have been raised to be the bait dog for a fighting ring or simply mistreated by negligent owners. No one knows for certain.

Ben first took Boo in as a foster dog about six years ago but fell in love with and adopted him (this is ironically deemed a “failed foster”). He became Jessie’s dog, too, when she moved in a few years ago. She was the one who’d answered Park Square Theatre’s call for dogs to audition and brought him in.

Boo is greeted by Director Annie Enneking at an early  rehearsal. (Photo by Connie Shaver)

“This will be Boo’s first stage appearance,” said Jessie. “He’s really mellow and well-behaved–he came already knowing sit and lay down–so I thought he’d be a great stage dog. He’s older now so doesn’t need as much physical activity. Getting attention from people is actually his best exercise. Also, whoever needs to control him just needs to have food; he’ll be very motivated. We’re using turkey training treats so there’ll be no crunching sounds.”

 

 

When not in rehearsals or on stage, Boo will be busy playing at Minnehaha Dog Park in Minneapolis, hanging out with his Rhodesian ridgeback buddy, laying together with fellow pet dweller Finska the cat or snuggling with his humans.

Boo has mastered his role as you can see in this photo from the final dress rehearsal. (Photo by Connie Shaver)

“That’s his favorite activity,” Jessie told me. “He sits and keeps pushing himself into you. I tell him, ‘You really can’t get any closer.’ He is so content just snuggling.”

Another favorite family activity is grabbing a meal at their dog-friendly neighborhood restaurant, The Howe. The dog menu includes a frozen smoked beef marrow bone that Boo can chew clean in three hours. According to Jessie, “Afterwards Boo passes gas and looks at his butt as if to ask, ‘Was that me?'”

Boo also loves toys. He enjoys slobbering all over his peanut butter-filled Kong, but his personal favorite is a stuffed rat. It’s six inches long and no longer white.

“We’re hesitant to get him stuffed animals because he chews them apart,” Jessie said. “But he hasn’t ripped up his rat. It isn’t very realistic either. He picks it up and shakes it. Or he licks it. It doesn’t squeak; squeaky toys get destroyed.”

Because pit bulls are stereotyped as mean, aggressive dogs, they are hard to place. Lavendar magazine’s 2017 Pet Issue, which features the nonprofit organization Save-a-Bull, reported that “approximately 75 percent of municipal shelters euthanize pit bulls immediately upon intake” and that “a recent study by the American People organization reported a 93 percent euthanasia rate for pit bulls and only one in 600 finds a forever home.”

Once people own or volunteer to rescue and care for a pit bull, they tend to become advocates for the breed to help break the myths and stereotypes about them. Jessie herself can’t say enough good things about Boo: “Boo has changed our lives. He is the best therapy dog. You can look in his eyes and see how much he loves you. He’s the best and the best friend.”

Boo and Jessie
(Photo by Annette Diana Design; see www.Annettedianadesign.com)

PIT BULL RESCUE EVENTS IN THE TWIN CITIES:

  • Save-a-Bull Rescue will be at Urban Tails Pet Supply, 2106 Lyndale Ave. S., Mpls., on November 11 (3-5 pm), December 2 (3-5 pm) and January 20 (12-2 pm) and at Chuck & Don’s, 4723 County Road 101, Minnetonka, on November 18 (12-2 pm).
  • Minnesota Pit Bull Rescue will be at For Pet’s Sake, 11724 Ulysses St. NE, Blaine, on November 12 (3-5 pm) and December 9, 11 am – 1 pm).

 

 

The World of Hamlet Made Concrete

The world of our Hamlet will seem modern without being specific to any one decade or national boundary. Our Denmark is a state of mind versus an actual Scandinavian country.

It’s a world of concrete, gold leaf and surveillance cameras; the main set element is literally a concrete cube tipped on edge–a brutal yet unsteady world. We’ll make use of video projection to both alter the landscape and take us to interior psychological landscapes of the characters. 

— Joel Sass in a note for the cast, which was attached to their rehearsal script

 * * *

While contemplating the set design for his new adaptation of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Joel Sass considered ideas such as a complicated set of stairs (“It looked cool but more complicated than needed.”) but ultimately settled on a tipped concrete cube. That design got the best response out of all his concepts.

“I looked for the simplest shape that seemed most resonate of each scene and would need minimal manipulation by the stage crew,” Joel said. “The fun part for me is the challenge of balancing practicality and ideas. I understand the interdependence between budget and design.”

Joel did not want a set with “the trappings of an antique, historical diorama.” Instead he wanted a modern design that would better reflect a world of our time. To achieve his ends, he looked to Nordic Brutalist Architecture with its exposed concrete construction that creates an atmosphere or discomfort and uneasiness. It was meant to feel contemporary and monumental–far from “ye old timie.”

 

Brutalist architecture was popular in the 1950s and 1960s and often used to design government and institutional structures, such as university buildings (for instance, the Rarig Center at University of Minnesota’s West Bank). Swedish architect Hans Asplund coined the term “brutalism” to describe Villa Goth, a house that he’d designed in Kabo, Uppsala, Sweden in 1949. The term was then picked up by a group of visiting English architects, and Brutalism’s popularity in England rose as an inexpensive construction and design method for a country that had been ravaged by World War II.

Hamlet’s world is one filled with anxiety due to a violent disruption in leadership and uncertainty as to who holds power. His world sounds a lot like ours today. Will we someday also experience a resurgence in the popularity of Brutalist architecture?

  • * * *

(Note: All photos were taken by Amy Anderson)

Label Him Talented

 

Wes Mouri as Laertes
(Photo by Amy Anderson)

Wes Mouri, who currently plays Laertes in William Shakespeare’s Hamlet at Park Square Theatre, had a propitious start to his acting career. Soon after graduating from Bethel University with a B.A. in Theatre Arts, he landed a role in Chanhassen Dinner Theatre’s Bye Bye Birdie. This was a six-month commitment from October 2012 to March 2013 that required eight performances weekly of evening and matinee shows.

“I learned so much about myself,” Wes said. “It really hit home that this is a profession, not something that you just do for a couple of weekends. You have to be talented, but you also have to be invested in the work.”

Stephanie Bertumen as Mei-Li and Wesley Mouri as Wang Ta in Flower Drum Song
(Photo by Connie Shaver)

Since his professional debut at Chanhassen Dinner Theatre, Wes has appeared in numerous musicals in the Twin Cities, including last season’s Flower Drum Song, co-produced by Park Square Theatre and Mu Performing Arts. He was proud to be cast in the lead role of Wang Ta, noting, “How often does a mixed-race man get to play a romantic lead?”

However, Wes was beginning to get pidgeon-holed in singing and dancing parts when Director Joel Sass offered him the dramatic role of Laertes in Hamlet.

“Joel’s frustrated when people are put into boxes,” Wes said of the man who’d also created this new adaptation of Hamlet. “He recognizes that not seeing people for their full potential stagnates their career. Even though I’d been playing young dancer types in musicals, Joel told me, ‘I know that you have the training and capacity to play another kind of role.’ He wants to grow the artist.”

Rehearsal scene: Wes Mouri (middle) as an upset Laertes being restrained by Maeve Moynihan (left) and Tinne Rosenmeier (right)
(Photo by Connie Shaver)

What Wes actually loves about theatre arts is that one doesn’t have to be stuck in a box. Being a theatre professional requires one to be a freelance artist. Besides acting, Wes also has experience in directing, marketing, stage managing and choreographing and knows that he will continually acquire new skills throughout his career.

Wes is very appreciative of theatre professionals, such as Joel Sass and Richard Cook, who willingly help artists break out of boxes through deliberate, inclusive casting choices. This process equalizes the chance for more humans to get a shot at roles and challenges norms to broaden the narratives. Park Square’s Hamlet, in fact, crosses both traditional gender and race lines in its casting.

Wes himself was not conscious that he could be limited by race until he was participating in a post-show discussion for Mu Performing Arts’ production of A Little Night Music in 2014.

“It was a big moment in my life,” Wes recalled. “I’d grown up in Rockford, Illinois, in a white-majority neighborhood. My dad is Japanese, but my mom is Caucasian. Both my parents are teachers. I attended a small private school, and everyone knew me as me, not as ‘the Asian kid.’

At the talk-back, a woman asked me what it was like to get to play the type of role that I would never have had a chance to play if Mu hadn’t produced the play. I had never considered that, and I just suddenly cried right on stage. I had never been boxed in as a dark-haired Asian. I’d always been surrounded by people saying I can absolutely do anything. Then I realized that the way I look could make it so I can’t do certain things.”

Wes Mouri as Laertes and Kory LaQuess Pullam as Hamlet; Tinne Rosenmeier as an attendant in the background
(Photo by Amy Anderson)

Knowing this made the first day of rehearsals for Hamlet particularly meaningful. According to Wes, “We walked in and knew that this is a unique and different production. Not only is it a very streamlined version of a classic Shakespeare work for adults and children; but the cast is half male and half female, with major roles being played by women. There are also five people of color out of ten. The fact that diverse school groups will see this show is wonderful.”

In Hamlet, who Wes is and what he looks like do not stand in the way of who he can become on stage. He is the headstrong young Laertes, brother of the tragic Ophelia and son of the politically powerful Polonia. He is the right actor for the part because he is talented.

To Thine Own Self Be True

The above phrase is one of the most famous lines in William Shakespeare’s Hamlet. It is a parent’s advice to only the son, not the daughter, Ophelia, who is played by Maeve Moynihan in Joel Sass’s new adaptation for Park Square Theatre. While some of the male characters have been changed to female in Joel’s version in order to, as he put it, “have more women walking the halls of Elsinore, expanding the notion of who carries power,” Ophelia does remain female and possess limited power in the face of social mores. With Park Square’s Hamlet set in modern times and presented to a contemporary audience, I wondered how Maeve perceived her character and planned to approach her role.

“Ophelia is a complex character, especially in relationship with the other characters,” Maeve reflected. “She’s often seen as being weak, but she’s not weak. She merely wants to please and do the right thing; she worries about the needs of others. The one kind of power that she has which the others lack–or isn’t as potent in them–is empathy. For Ophelia, she has a sense of caring that’s so strong that it cripples her. If you don’t look out for yourself, then you can lose sight of yourself. So Ophelia is misunderstood when we read the play.”

Maeve continued, “Ophelia does have a mind of her own and her own opinions, but she wants to make her mom Polonia proud. The other characters muddle up for her what’s right and wrong for herself, especially her mother, who asks her to spy on Hamlet. It’s not what she would do; but her mom, whom she loves, has asked her to do it.”

As Maeve sees it, Ophelia is very teen-like, a life stage when she’s trying to figure out who she is as an individual. She’s doing this in a court where her mother is of very high rank so Ophelia must always be concerned about how she reflects on her family.

Ophelia (center), played by Maeve Moynihan (Photo by Amy Anderson)

“Sometimes we find ourselves in situations when we’re not weak people or pushovers. We’re just trying to do the right thing given the circumstances,” Maeve said. “What would it be like to be the kid of the President, and you didn’t have a choice about being that?”

Maeve imagines that Ophelia wishes that she could tell everyone to just leave her alone. She doesn’t want her life, including her relationship with Hamlet, in the public eye at all times. During rehearsals, Maeve herself has wished that Ophelia could also tell Hamlet, “Quit being a jerk! It’s not my fault that your father died.”

The prospect of playing Ophelia was, indeed, intimidating for Maeve. The youthful Maeve could certainly relate to Ophelia, but she feared overthinking the role. Director Joel Sass got her to trust her instincts in exploring what he called the “inner violence” done to her. While Maeve had initially considered Ophelia’s descent into madness to be “a fragile unraveling,” she began to see its more explosive emotionality.

“Originally, I would have approached it as unfathomable sadness,” Maeve said. “But Ophelia is actually trying really hard to find her reality again. She realizes that she has a warped reality and something is off because of how people comment on her behavior. What’s frightening to her is not that she thinks something is wrong with herself but that others are treating her like that.

Cast members being directed by Joel Sass; Maeve is second from the left
(Photo by Connie Shaver)

We’ve seen her repressed throughout the play, and finally it’s the moment for her to unleash all the emotions she’d been wanting to let out. She’s no longer worried about how people see her. She lets her pent-up frustration and anger come out. We get to see the demons inside of her that needs expression.”

In rehearsals, Maeve worked hard on how best to unsettle the audience with sharp emotional shifts, true to Joel’s intention to take the audience “to interior psychological landscapes of the characters.” Sudden laughter may just as suddenly turn into crying.

For Maeve, a 2016 graduate of the University of Minnesota/Guthrie Theater Acting Program, the draw to becoming an actor was the chance to get into characters’ heads to be different people. She loves that, as a result, actors come to accept and understand people in new ways. She loves that she’s in a profession that builds empathy.

Nine years ago, some of you may have seen Maeve on the Guthrie stage as Carrie in Little House on the Prairie. That girl has since grown up and is now very excited to be on Park Square’s Proscenium Stage to play the multilayered Ophelia. In her own words, “It’s going to be awesome!”

To Be!

Kory LaQuess Pullam as Hamlet (Photo by Amy Anderson)

Kory LaQuess Pullam isn’t a huge Shakespeare buff, nor did he go through any part of his life being overly enamored of the Bard’s “precious language.” Yet, after Park Square Theatre’s annual “cattle call” audition, he found himself with the opportunity to play Hamlet in Joel Sass’s new adaptation of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet. But if you stop to think about it, Kory’s lack of preconditioned awe makes him a fitting choice for a director who is trying to tell the story anew.

When asked what he brings to the table during rehearsals, Kory said, “I’m coming into this from the outside in the sense that I didn’t grow up around that [Shakespeare worship (my words)] so I have new eyes that can be useful.”

What especially excites Kory about playing Hamlet is not only the challenge but also the opportunity to do so for younger audiences in the student matinees.

“I really revel in interacting with and working for youths,” Kory emphasized. “I’d hate for thousands of students–and for some, this will be their first experience seeing Hamlet–to see an actor approaching this as just another gig.”

Noting that our student audiences tend to be much more diverse, Kory added, “I want to be a face that they can see and realize, ‘We’re valued.'”

Kory’s Hamlet will, in fact, deliberately close the distance between himself and the audience. He will at times directly address them as his confidants, forming the type of bond usually reserved for close friends. His Hamlet won’t be academic but real.

Rehearsing on the Proscenium Stage
(Photo by Connie Shaver)

The first time that Hamlet addresses the audience, he’s telling them, ‘I need the audience. I’m in a place that’s suicidal. I want to become vapor,'” Kory pointed out. ” We tend to forget that Hamlet’s not just sad; he’s not just an angry teen. He’s suffering from post-traumatic stress! His father has died; his mother has moved fast to remarry; his country’s in an uproar.

Hamlet wishes God hadn’t made it a bad thing to slaughter himself. Suicide’s an act that would send him to Hell so he has to stay alive and deal with all this. So many people feel that struggle and hurt everyday.”

Kory will, of course, get to recite that famous soliloquy, “To be, or not to be . . . .” as Hamlet continues to deal with his anguish throughout the play. In academic circles, much ado is usually made over Hamlet’s indecision or inability to act. The irony is that Kory himself is a dynamic ball of action.

“I’ve been here for four years and going 200 miles per hour for the past few years,” Kory said. “I’ve done way more than I could have imagined. It’s crazy what’s happened.”

What’s happened to Kory, besides being cast as Hamlet at Park Square Theatre this season, is that:

  • his wildly popular comedy troupe, Blackout Improv, recently celebrated its second anniversary
  • Underdog Theatre, which he found in 2016, earned raves for its debut play, Baltimore is Burning, which he’d written
  • he’s at work on a trilogy, starting with Odd Man Out, a portion of which was performed in this year’s Minnesota Fringe Festival
  • he’s just been tapped to direct Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry at SteppingStone Theatre for Youth (performances from February 7 to March 3, 2018)

And there are so many other dream roles that Kory would love to someday take on: Iago in Shakespeare’s Othello, Orestes in Euripedes’ Orestes, Walter Lee in Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun, Marcus in Tarell Alvin McCraney’s Marcus; or the Secret of Sweet, Booth in Suzan-Lori Park’s Topdog/Underdog and Pastor Paul in Lucas Hnath’s The Christians.

Kory also professed “an addiction to collaboration” that drives his momentum but recognizes the eventual need to slow down for several weeks of what he described as “doing nothing.” But then he’ll be up and running again, being dynamically creative and joyfully present–basically, being Kory LaQuess Pullam.

Tickets and more information at http://parksquaretheatre.org/box-office/shows/2017-18/william-shakespeares-hamlet/

 

Charles Hubbell: The Claudius of Clout

Charles Hubbell is an actor currently performing in Park Square Theatre’s Hamlet. In this production, he portrays the conniving Claudius, killer of Hamlet’s father – usurper of the throne. Such a cool and calculating character demands a smart and experienced actor and Hubbell fits the role perfectly. Not only does he have experience with the play, but actually doing it at Park Square before, albeit as a different character. Looking back on the show, directed by Mary Finnerty, he recalls:

I played the role of Laertes. I was an insufferable hack then. Long hair, arrogant and rebellious. I regret I caused a lot of mischief during that production. Now I’m back as Claudius which is great fun because I’m bringing my years of experience and hopefully some maturity to the role. It’s fun to do those same Laertes/Claudius scenes I did then [once] as the hot headed youth but now I’m the cool, calculating King. 

Even when sitting in on a recent rehearsal, I would definitely vouch for this sense of maturity.

Charles Hubbell as Claudius (Photo by Amy Anderson)

A native of the Twin Cities, Hubbell was born and raised in Golden Valley and Crystal, respectively, before studying at the University of Minnesota. In addition to working his way through all the characters in Hamlet, he works as a talent agent for Agency Models and Talent, finding actors and models for the commercial market. His long experience in the independent movie world, as well as voiceover work, television and web shows, lends itself quite naturally to finding work for others in the field. Not only that, but he is an accomplished puppeteer and loves working with puppet teams to create webisodes and live comedy shows. These ain’t your typical kid-friendly puppets shows, however, as Hubbell prefers more grown up comedy, for those who enjoy Jim Henson-styled puppetry. His work has been seen on the web with Transylvania Television and at The Brave New Workshop with Tipsy Kangaroo’s Naughty Puppet Review.

Don’t expect that same level of irreverence with Claudius, however. As you take in Park Square’s production, you’ll be hooked by a very Machiavellian figure. Not just a politician, but a strategist, who is playing a long game of chess he intends to win. Perhaps not unlike many real-life figures throughout history, he is willing to challenge the divine and bend the will of his subjects.

Tickets and more information at parksquaretheatre.org

Adapted and directed by Joel Sass and featuring Charles Hubbell as ‘Claudius”. 

Tinne Rosenmeier is Polonia

Recently I had the supreme pleasure of speaking with actor, Tinne Rosenmeier, who is playing Polonia in Park Square Theatre’s production of Hamlet. Ms. Rosenmeier had a lot to say not only about the production itself, but how re-imagining the character “Polonius” as a woman helps bring fresh life to an established classic.

Photo by Nancy Hauck

So what’s it been like playing a character such as Polonia? What can audiences come away with after seeing your portrayal?

Polonia, yes.  WOW!  First of all, there’s the thrill of the opportunity, right? That made me giddy and rather flighty during our first week of rehearsals.  Then, there’s the history of the role, our expectations of who and what Polonius is: stuffy, fusty, chatty, a bit impotent and comical. Polonius is deeply embedded in the masculine story, history, and culture of our cultural understanding of Hamlet, the play. What happens when we shift away from that?

What we’re discovering is that Polonia  (the concept), works just fine.  As a power broker, I have many contemporary politicians to study – their poise, strength, and steel. There’s the reality we face as working women and mothers: how many of us can still be involved in the day to day of raising our children?  Polonia is and has been a working mother, and that very contemporary reality never confronted, and is unlikely to ever confront, a man playing a Polonius.  We still live in a society that stretches women to do it all. At the moment (though there may be some nuances we haven’t reached yet in rehearsals) Polonia has made career choices to serve her king(s), and she isn’t much given to self-doubt or regret.

As a mother, there are insights into Ophelia’s plight that don’t surface for a “Polonius.” The advice that she quit her crush on Hamlet hinges on his freedoms as a man and a prince — ‘with a longer tether may he walk/Than may be given you.’  What a rich vein to plumb. I think it is a mark of her lack of self-knowledge that she doesn’t recognize her own complicity in Ophelia’s trap, and despair.

When did you first get involved with Park Square?

My first audition for Park Square was in 1984, when I was embarrassed to learn that a Shakespearean sonnet wasn’t the same as an audition monologue.  I felt pretty lucky when I got a call to step into a part another actress vacated, in Arthur Miller’s The American Clock.   Later that season, or the next, I was again called in as a replacement, in The Master Builder, with Bill Kimes.  I was invited to join the resident acting company Park Square had for a few years, and spent a few seasons working here.

It was an amazing experience, but I learned the limits of untrained acting.  It was the kind and generous advice of Richard Cook, plus the encouragement of Betty Burdick (who played Mrs. Master Builder) that propelled me to seek training.  I needed a process.  It’s a deep satisfaction and honor to return to Park Square with technique and process, and to develop this role.

My family moved back to Saint Paul in 2000. I just couldn’t break in as an actress at that point, and I took myself over to Hamline to get my teaching license.  Over the last 13 years I’ve been teaching around the Twin Cities. I was so proud and excited to bring students to Park Square’s education programs and productions.  The Build a Moment experience is the cleanest introduction to the power of theater design and tech I’ve every run across. I also served on Park Square’s  Education Advisory Board for a few years, and raise my hat to Mary Finnerty and the whole group.  I believe in theater education, and Park Square’s contribution is unmatched and indispensable.

Tinne Rosenmeier is a Minnesota-native, born in St. Paul and a graduate of Carleton College and holds an MA in Educational Theatre from New York University. She also attended the National Shakespeare Conservatory in New York City. In addition to Park Square Theatre, she has been seen on stage at Pangea World Theatre (The House of Bernarda Alba) and Savage Umbrella (The Awakening), among many others. When she is not performing or teaching, her interests include playing with her dog, feeding the chickens, gardening and quilting when the weather turns cold.

See Ms. Rosenmeier in Hamlet, on the Proscenium Stage through November 11! The play is adapted and directed by Joel Sass.

 
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