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Remembering Virginia Burke

Virginia Burke

Were you in the audience for Park Square’s production Becky’s New Car in 2009? How about Rock’n’Roll, or Sherlock Holmes and the Jersey Lilly? Or perhaps you loved 2013’s Good People? If you saw any of these plays, you were witness to the remarkable talent of actress Virginia Burke, who passed away in early July only a month after being diagnosed with lung cancer. A frequent performer at many local companies including Frank Theatre, The Actors Theatre of Minnesota, and the Guthrie, she leaves behind a legacy of passion, creativity, and dedication to the theatre.

 

 

Virginia Burke in Becky's Car at Park Square Theatre

Becky’s Car

At Park Square, Burke performed in twelve productions spanning over twenty years.* Wherever she went, she stole the show or the scene. In 2009, Dominick Papatola wrote in the Pioneer Press, “I like Becky’s New Car — the new play by Steven Dietz now onstage at Park Square Theatre — quite a bit. But I love, love, love Virginia Burke’s performance in the title role.” He went on to describe her incredible performance, “her face has a thousand expressions — eyes bugged out in horror or squeezed shut in frustration; lips pursed in thinning patience or gnawed at in moral quandary; chin dipped in guilt or riding high with the excitement of new adventure.”

 

Virginia Burke in Rock 'N' Roll at Park Square Theatre

Rock ‘N’ Roll

 

Mary Finnerty directed Burke in Tom Stoppard’s Rock’n’Roll in 2010 and speaks fervently about all that Burke gave to Park Square, as well as the dedication of her mother, Virginia McFerran. “Whenever Gina was part of an education event at Park Square, she would break the mold and approach the students on a whole new level… utterly authentically — and they were riveted. When I told her she had a rare gift for connecting with teens, she winked, ‘Well… I still have a lot of adolescent left in me ya know, besides, my ma was the best teacher and director on the planet and I learned by watching her.’  Burke’s Mother, Dr. Virginia McFerran, has served for 13 years on the Park Square Teacher Advisory Board, editing and creating study materials and tirelessly brokering connections with Arts Educators. For McFerran, watching Gina onstage was transfixing and the joy it brought beyond description. “She was my theatre buddy. When I was writing, I would call and run a line by her and she would have great feedback. She was so wise… so talented.’”

 

Sherlock Holmes and the Jersey Lily

 

Burke performed in three of Park Square’s summer mysteries, and was first introduced to the theatre by her close friend Peter Moore, director of many shows including Might As Well Be Dead: A Nero Wolfe Mystery, which just closed last weekend. In honor of her great contributions to Park Square and the greater Twin Cities theatre community, a seat in the proscenium theatre where she performed so many times will be dedicated to Virginia Burke this fall with her family present.

 

Thank you for sharing your talents with us, Virginia. Your spirit will always be alive in our hearts and on the stage.

*Virginia Burke Performed in Twelve Shows at Park Square from 1992 to 2013
2013  Good People (Margie)
2011  August Osage County (Barb)
2011  Sherlock Holmes and the Jersey Lily (Lily Langtry)
2010  The Last Seder (Jane)
2010  Rock ‘n’ Roll (Candida)
2010  Sherlock Holmes: The Final Adventure (Irene Adler)
2009  Becky’s New Car (Becky)
2009  Othello (Amelia)
2002  June Moon (Lucille)
1995  Merton of the Movies (The Montague Girl)
1993  On Borrowed Time
1992  Macbeth (Witch)

Personal Highlights of the Past Season

The Diary of Anne Frank at Park Square Theatre in Saint Paul, MN - 2018 - Actors playing Anne Frank & Father

It has been 75 years since Anne Frank was given a diary by her father. The Diary of Anne Frank remains a perennial favorite of school groups. This coming season, limited evening performances will also be available. (Photo by Petronella J. Ytsma)

Always, the Education Program

Park Square takes great pride in its Education Program for good reasons. It’s a powerfully transformative program, not just for its effect on its young audiences but also as an inspiration within our own organization. Mindfully created and led by the incomparable Mary Finnerty since 1994, the Education Program has often served as first exposure of professional theatre to young audiences. But you can see how it’s much more than that in such defining moments as when the lightbulb of understanding lit up for a student while Sulia Rose Altenberg, who played Anne Frank, answered his question as to why the Jews didn’t simply pretend to be Christians or the teacher of a Somali group explained that they came to be exposed to a broader community. Our Education Program provides a safe venue for our young patrons to grapple with self-discovery, self-definition and social interconnectedness. It has also been a catalyst for Park Square to consider those very same issues within its own walls. Impactful is only one adjective that best describes “The Program That Mary Built” (see the August 16, 2016, blog post).

A Raisin in the Sun at Park Square Theatre in Saint Paul, MN - 2018

A Raisin in the Sun knocked our socks off and will be back for another season by popular demand. (Photo by Connie Shaver)

Staying In the Thick of It

Park Square Theatre, with its long-held reputation as a white mainstream institution, has had to do much organizational soul-searching to embrace change. Is having to grapple with equity, diversity and inclusion a long and messy process? Does building trust feel hard-won or, more aptly, simply hard? Do they sometimes get things wrong (and, of course, right)? Have they kept forging ahead? The answer is a resounding “Yes!”

Mu Performing Arts co-produced Flower Drum Song with Park Square Theatre and returns with another production in the upcoming season.

The Independents

Collaborations with smaller independent companies through its co-production of Flower Drum Song with Mu Performing Arts and productions by its Theatres in Residence–Sandbox Theatre, Theatre Pro Rata and Girl Friday Productions–broadened the season’s scope. I loved the “one-stop shop” to be able to try out new companies and see what they’re all about. Look forward to French Twist by Flying Foot Forum and the return of Mu Performing Arts for A Korean Drama Addict’s Guide to Losing Your Virginity in our upcoming season.

H. Adam Harris and Kathryn Fumie in this past season’s The (curious case of the) Watson Intelligence
(Photo by Petronella J. Ytsma)

The (curious case of the) Watson Intelligence

Having been one of the volunteer script readers to consider this complex, time-jumping, contemporary play for production, it was exciting to see it finally come to fruition on stage. The thumbs up on the script was actually a tough call, surmising its challenge for audiences to grasp–both its pro and con. The play really made me think about the state of human relationships in our techno-world. Did it do the same for you? It also had one of the most beautiful sets ever by Set Designer Lance Brockman and moving performances by actors Kathryn Fumie, Adam Whisner and H. Adam Harris in roles that let their own true souls shine through their fictional facades. Hope you were there! Note: Contact John White, Literary Management Volunteer (white@Parksquaretheatre.org), to discuss your interest to become a volunteer script reader.

Jamil Jude with Hope Cervantes, who was in this past season’s The House on Mango Street
(Photo by Connie Shaver)

Jamil Jude, Park Square’s former Artistic Programming Associate

When Jamil had just been on board for several months, someone asked me, “Do you even know what he does here?” Guess what a young man with an expansive heart and the passion to build bridges and break down walls has done within his relatively short time in the Twin Cities community? Break a leg at your new gig in Atlanta! (Refer to past blogs “Jamil Jude, Artist Plus,” “What’s That Got to Do With Jamil Jude?” and “Jamil Jude, We’ll Miss You.”)

The Conversations That Became Real

Eric "Pogi" Sumangil

Eric “Pogi” Sumangil

In an industry that endlessly tries to grab a piece of you, remaining guarded is an act of self-care and self-preservation. You’re constantly navigating the minefields of others’ self-interests and being put in compromising situations. Who do you want to be in those circumstances? Who must you become? Who are you really? Whenever you get a glimpse into a theatre professional’s inner humanity, it’s a golden moment for sure! Theatre professionals rock!

Vincent HannamMy Fellow Bloggers

Getting Eric “Pogi” Sumangil on the team for this past season and blogging for another year with the wholehearted Vincent Hannam were awesome, to say the least. As the only blogger without a theatre background and career, following these two’s works online and onstage served as terrific learning tools. Each of us wrote around complex schedules due to multiple gigs and personal responsibilities. Thanks for being there!

 

How Do You See It? (Let’s Talk About It!)

It was a lazy Sunday morning on June 27, 2017. I was drinking my cup of joe and reading the Star Tribune. Specifically, an article by Rohan Preston–“About face: Actors on Twin Cities stages increasingly reflect the diversity of their audiences. But they’re hardly ‘colorblind.'” I noted a comment made by Randy Reyes, the artistic director of Mu Performing Arts: “Where nontraditional casting doesn’t work is where you, a person of color, is cast as a white character in a white context.” I had just seen Might As Well Be Dead, the Nero Wolfe mystery, at Park Square Theatre two nights before and had a disparate reaction to a casting decision than my guest. I am an Asian American woman. He is a white male.

Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe mysteries fall within the “pulp” or “hard boiled” fiction genre, which is noted for its tendency toward “casual misogyny” and “glee with the unseemly parts of human nature–boundless greed, lust, and corruption,” as described in Park Square’s playbill. Might As Well Be Dead is specifically set in 1956, a time when anti-miscegenation statutes were still legal in the United States (until they were struck down in Loving v. Virginia in 1967) and interracial relationships were deeply frowned upon.

It was within this context that I couldn’t help but notice that the female characters in the production, played by the talented Am’Ber Montgomery, Marisa B. Tejeda and Austene Van, were all women of color portraying either a spouse or mistress to high-society white men. Austene also played the businesswoman who, as described on our website, “came begging for help” from Nero Wolfe. While my guest was also initially jolted by this, he was able to “go with it” for the ride in this fictional story, whereas I remained bothered.

Were each of the women of color “cast as a white character in a white context”? Or is this play not about race at all so simply the most capable actor was aptly cast? I’m curious about what you think and so are Artistic Director Richard Cook and Executive Director Michael-jon Pease. You may reach them at cook@parksquaretheatre.org (651.767.8482) or pease@parksquaretheatre.org (651.767.8497).

 

A scene from Might As Well Be Dead

Don Maloney as Pat Degan in Iconic Nero Wolfe Mystery

Tell me about your character. What makes you excited about playing him?

Actor Don Maloney in Park Square Theatre's production of Might As Well Be Dead, A Nero Wolfe MysteryI play the character of Pat Degan, who is the head of the Mechanics Alliance Welfare Association and is personally connected to the victim, Bill Malloy. When Peter Moore cast me in this role, I was most excited to have the chance to workshop the character. It is a rare opportunity that you get to work with the writer and director to help shape the character in both his demeanor and dialogue.

For readers who aren’t familiar with the practice of developing a new play, could you tell us about this process?

Workshopping is a unique opportunity for the actor to work with the director and writer on developing the character while the script is still in development. I love the freedom that comes with this type of process. For Might as Well Be Dead, it was fun to play with the character and bring my own creative vision, which was a more blue collar take than the writer originally had in mind. Both Peter and Joseph really embraced the direction I was going and as a result, Joseph tailored the dialogue so that we could steer the character in that direction. This type of character development happened across the entire cast. It was so rewarding as an actor to collaborate in this way with such a talented group of people.

Is Degan typical of the characters you portray? What kinds of roles have you performed recently? Is the play’s blend of suspense and comedy typical in that sense?

I would say that Degan is a larger than life character and that aligns with some of the characters I have played in the past. Although, the last character I played was Marco in View from the Bridge, who is a man of few words but a man of action when it comes to his family. In my career, I have had the privilege of playing a wide range of characters and I have enjoyed having the opportunity to develop Patrick Degan into the character he is now on stage.

I see that you received your BFA in 1994. I wonder if you could talk about where you feel you are as actor right now in your career. Where do you feel you come from artistically.

I am proud of the career I have had as an actor from my high school and college days to my time in Los Angeles to coming back home to the Twin Cities theater scene. I think the most identifiable growth I have seen in my acting is that in my younger years it was more about the performance I was giving to impress others, and now, it is about the process. I am having more fun simply creating characters and collaborating with my fellow actors. There is so much talent here in the Twin Cities and so much support from the community. It is good to be back.

Without revealing too much about the plot, what’s your favorite moment in the play to be onstage?

With this show, it is less about a specific moment on stage than it is about being a part of this show as a whole. You rely so much on each other in a mystery to keep the audience guessing. It has been so fun to be a part of a 1950s iconic mystery where the dialogue is snappy and fun. It was great to work with Peter Moore and Joseph Goodrich as they really keyed into what the actors were bringing to the characters and fine tuned the interactions to make this show a successful suspense. Honestly, it has just been incredible to be back on the stage at Park Square, it really felt like coming home.

Marisa B. Tejeda: Catch Her If You Can

by Matt DiCintio

Tell me about the characters you play in Might As Well Be Dead. What kind of women are they? What makes you excited about playing them? Do you find it exciting to play multiple characters within one play?

 I love both of the characters that I play. And although they both are quite different than who I am as a person, they have traits that I can definitely connect with. Rita Arkoff is a rich society woman who is quite ditzy and unaware of her surroundings. Delia Brandt is a hipster beatnik who is a junkie and liar; she is very smooth and owns her sexuality. They both have been really fun to play because they both are extremely different than one another. And for a gal who loves character acting, they both have been a blast to play.

I know you’re early in your career, but do you find Nero Wolfe typical of the genre you’ve performed in? Are the characters typical for you? Perhaps in that vein, I see you trained at the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey. I wonder if you could tell me about that training, and maybe how you see it fitting into/giving life to your acting career. 

I’ve been in one murder mystery musical before, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, but nothing prior to that. I’ve been very blessed that I have played so many different types of people, from romantic leads in Shakespeare plays to kooky characters in new works and musicals. I am so thankful for all my training that I have received at the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey. Brian B. Crowe, Stephen Brown Fried, Bruce Cromer, Benard Cummings and Donnie Mather who taught classes in the three-month program have helped and shaped me immensely as an artist. I was one of the apprentices cast in the Main Stage show and got to work with topnotch artists who made me really want to pursue this life as an actor/artist. It was the toughest three months of my life, but I believe that I am a working artist today because of all the tools I was given at that program.

I see that you graduated from Concordia last year. Are you from the Twin Cities area? If not, I wonder if you could talk about why you’ve stayed and decided to pursue theatre here? And even if you are from the Twin Cities, could you give me your perspective about theatre in the Twin Cities? 

I’m originally from Hastings, Minnesota, but at 16 I wanted to start auditioning for shows outside of school. I worked with Young Artists Initiative, Youth Performance Company and Stages as a student actor. When I was 17, I moved to the Twin Cities so I could be an actor in A Christmas Carol at the Guthrie and I transferred to a project-based high school that allowed me to perform more often. I decided to stay here in the Twin Cities because I felt like I belonged here and had a lot more to learn from the artists I have met here. I decided to go to Concordia in Saint Paul because of the head of the department, Mark Rosenwinkel. Mark has been one of my biggest sources of inspiration and support, and I owe so much to him for helping shape me and push me as an artist, and not just an actor.

Where do you see yourself as an artist in 20 years?

Well, I just started a new theatre collective called Theatre Unchecked. It’s a theatre company dedicated to producing original work created by young POC, Queer and Female-Identifying artists. Although our city is very diverse, I see a lack of diversity in the people creating, directing and producing the work. I wanted to be a part of changing that, so my dear friend Ben Swenson-Klatt and I started Theatre Unchecked. Our show was accepted into the Twin Cities Horror Festival 2017 at the Southern Theatre, so we will be producing that this fall. I hope in 20 years that Theatre Unchecked is producing full seasons of original work, and I hope I am fulfilled by all the art I am creating, whether that be acting, educating, directing, writing or producing.

Of all the roles in all the world, what’s your dream role?

It is a three way tie: Cassius in Julius Caesar, Medea and Natasha in Natasha Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812.

What’s next for you after Might As Well Be Dead finishes up at Park Square?

 I am in GIRL Theatre’s Broad Sex in the Twin Cities, playing at Strike Theater in Minneapolis, as part of the Minnesota Fringe Festival going on August 3-13. It’s a fun comedy inspired by the cult classics Broad City and Sex and the City and follows two quirky millennials who enjoy love, laughter and the light rail. Our show times will be August 4 at 10 pm, August 5 at 5:30 pm, August 7 at 8:30 pm, August 10 at 5:30 pm and August 13 at 4 pm.

A scene from Might As Well Be Dead (Marisa is in red)

Jim Pounds in Might As Well Be Dead: A Nero Wolfe Mystery

Tell me about your characters. What makes you excited about playing them? How do you handle being double-cast?

Actor Jim Pounds plays Fritz in Might As Well Be Dead: A Nero Wolfe Mystery at Park Square TheatreOne of my characters is Fritz, Mr. Wolfe’s exceptional Swiss chef. It is very satisfying to be part of the Wolfe household. Most of the actors in the show are double or even triple cast. It essentially means you spend most of the performance changing clothes! My other character is a suspect. I have the great good fortune to be playing the husband of the one and only Austene Van, so that is a treat!

Fritz, right, played by Jim Pounds in Might As Well Be Dead: A Nero Wolfe Mystery. (Photo: Petronella J. Ytsma)

Are they typical of roles you’ve played recently?

I was fortunate to have been in The Red Box [also by Rex Stout], so this is an extension of that experience. I played Inspector Lestrade in a radio production of 13 Sherlock Holmes mysteries many years ago in my native Los Angeles.

You’ve had an extensive career in Twin Cities theatre, as an actor, but also as a co-founder of Outward Spiral more than twenty years ago. How do you feel theatre in the Twin Cities has changed in your time?

The dynamism of the theatre scene here is almost totally unique. There are the big dragons that eat most of the money and get most of the media attention. Then there is a strata of perhaps 15 small professional theatres (such as Park Square) that truly feed the artistic needs of the community. Semi-pro theatres and community theatres provide opportunities and stepping stones for those who aspire to a career. If you are part of the Guthrie/U of M program, you seem to leap frog into the major leagues. Over the years, I have learned that very few move up the ladder. Stephen Yoakam and Sally Wingert and James Craven were prominent when I moved here in 1983, and they still are. Unfortunately the Guthrie thinks they need actors from out of town when in fact, I would say that our talent pool is so rich and so deep that there is almost never a need to look anywhere else. Most actors have figured out that now you have to create your own work. Many very talented people have started their own companies.

How do you think your work as an actor has evolved?

Every time I see a performance from someone that impresses me I am reminded that less is more. This is a lesson that has been hard for me to learn. I strive to learn it every day.

How is less more in the theatre?

I’m speaking of the size of the performance. There are actors who make it look easy. They draw you in as opposed to pushing the performance out. It’s difficult to do and it’s difficult to explain, but when you see it, you know it. Wendy Lehr gave that kind of performance in Saint Joan at Park Square. You couldn’t take your eyes off of her. From six feet away or 106 feet away, she drew you into the Queen’s heart and mind. I imagine it is something all actors strive for but few achieve.

Alright, the curtain’s just fallen on a two-show day? Where does the cast go for post-show refreshment? What’s the “Sardi’s of St. Paul?”

After a two show day, most of us will be scraped off the sidewalk and ladled into our cars. Still, Great Waters seems to be the default choice. No actor that I know can afford a drink at Sardi’s, so drink specials at Great Waters will have to do!

Continue to be Delighted

Be sure to come in from the summer heat to catch the final performances of Girl Friday Productions’ Idiot’s Delight on Park Square Theatre’s Boss Stage. This is the show’s final week, with tickets still available for all four remaining dates (July 20, 21, 22 and 23), but we encourage folks to buy now to guarantee a spot!

Girl Friday’s reputation for exceptionally high-quality ensemble work attracts some of the Twin Cities’ most talented actors to be in its plays. After July, you can catch several Idiot’s Delight cast members again in the Minnesota Fringe Festival, Minnesota State Fair or other productions this fall!

AT THE MINNESOTA FRINGE FESTIVAL (August 3 – 13)

Kirby Bennett (Signora Pittaluga, the Italian resort owner in Idiot’s Delight) 

  • Much Ado About Nothing (as told by Dogberry and Verges) with Rough Magic Performance Company – Playing at Jungle Theater
  • Shakespeare’s classic comedy of love/hate relationships made modern by six women and two puppets. A hilarious and moving tale of love, jealousy, trickery and redemption with a fresh and feminist perspective.
  • This show is appropriate for ages 12 to 15 and up.
  • Sunday, August 6, 1 pm; Monday, August 7, 10 pm; Tuesday, August 8, 8:30 pm; Friday, August 11, 5:30 pm; Sunday, August 13, 5:30 pm

Karissa Lade (Beulah, one of the blonde entertainers in Idiot’s Delight)

  • The Wright Stuff, or You’ll Believe They Can Fly! with Outlandish Productions – Playing at Mixed Blood Theatre
  • The story of two brothers who got knocked down–but they got up again. Nothing’s ever going to keep them down.
  • This show is appropriate for ages 12 to 15 and up.
  • Thursday, August 3, 5:30 pm; Saturday, August 5, 7 pm; Monday, August 7, 5:30 pm; Wednesday, August 9, 7 pm; Saturday, August 12, 1 pm

Kory LaQuess Pullam (Quillery, a French socialist in Idiot’s Delight)

  • Odd Man Out with Underdog Theatre – Playing at University of Minnesota Rarig Center Arena (Kory founded Underdog Theatre and wrote Odd Man Out)
  • The death of a family patriarch summons James to his hometown in South Texas. Once he arrives, James is confronted with issues of the past and present. Nothing is left on the table in this world premier drama.
  • This show is appropriate for ages 16+.
  • Friday, August 4, 7 pm; Sunday, August 6, 10 pm; Thursday, August 10, 5:30 pm; Saturday, August 12, 8:30 pm; Sunday, August 13, 2:30 pm)

Kory LaQuess Pullam (Quillery, a French socialist in Idiot’s Delight)

  • Blackout Improv with Rogues Gallery Arts – Playing at Phoenix Theater
  • Members of this all person of color improv team take on the Minnesota Fringe in a way that only they can, with humor, swag and a focus on social issues. Each performance will feature an amazing special guest!
  • This show is appropriate for ages 16+.
  • Thursday, August 3, 7 pm; Saturday, August 5, 7 pm; Monday, August 7, 8:30 pm; Wednesday, August 9, 5:30 pm; Thursday, August 10, 8:30 pm

AT THE MINNESOTA STATE FAIR (August 24 – September 4)

Bonni Allen (Shirley, a blonde entertainer in Idiot’s Delight) and Kory LaQuess Pullam (Quillery, a French socialist in Idiot’s Delight)

  • History on a Schtick at the Schilling Amphitheater with the Minnesota Historical Society
  • Daily at 9:30 am and 10:30 am (30 minutes performance time)

IN FALL PRODUCTIONS

Bonni Allen (Shirley, a blonde entertainer in Idiot’s Delight)

  • Sam’s Son with Bucket Brigade at Art House North
  • A prohibition-era bluegrass musical inspired by the story of Samson
  • October 6 – 28

Becca Hart (Bebe, a blonde entertainer in Idiot’s Delight)

  • The Music Man at Artistry
  • Meredith Wilson’s six-time, Tony Award-winning musical comedy–family entertainment at its best
  • October 13 – November 5

Eric Knutson (Captain Locicero, an Italian Army officer in Idiot’s Delight)

  • All the Way at the History Theatre
  • A reconstruction of Lyndon Johnson’s dramatic first year as president
  • October 7 – 29

John Middleton (Harry Van, an American entertainer in Idiot’s Delight)

  • Henry and Alice: Into the Wild at Park Square Theatre
  • The hilarious follow up to the smash hit Sexy Laundry
  • September 15 – October 22

Kory LaQuess Pullam (Quillery, a French socialist in Idiot’s Delight)

  • Hamlet by William Shakespeare at Park Square Theatre
  • October 13 – November 11

Karen Wiese-Thompson (Dr. Waldersee, a German scientist in Idiot’s Delight)

  • Electra by Euripides at Ten Thousand Things
  • September 28 – November 5

Albert, Arkoff, and Paul Reyburn

Tell me about Albert and Arkoff. How are you approaching the characters? What about playing two characters in one play?

Paul Reyburn plays Albert and Arkoff in Might As Well Be Dead, A Nero Wolfe Mystery, at Park Square Theatre in Saint Paul, MN

Albert Breyer is a bit of a nebbish and Arkoff is a showoff. Peter [Moore, director], Sophie [Peyton, assistant director], and I talked about their backgrounds. We decided that Albert is pretty low on the ladder so he tries to put on a good show, but it doesn’t always work. Arkoff is “new money” and likes that he is rich and doesn’t care much for anyone that isn’t. They’re very different so I worked to make sure they weren’t terribly similar. Playing two (or more) characters in a show is a lot of fun, at least for me. There’s no time to get “complacent” during a show. I have five costume changes in the show so I’m always thinking ahead.

Are they typical of roles you’ve played recently? Is the play’s genre, the mix of mystery and comedy, something you’ve had experience with?

This is the first non-musical I’ve done in five years, I think. That was I Hate Hamlet, also with Peter Moore and Brandon Ewald. The role of Arkoff is sort of similar to the character I played in I Hate Hamlet, a TV producer, only not as over the top. I have “better” hair in this show. I’ve done mostly comedy and a few mysteries. I was a fan of the Ellery Queen short stories growing up, so I feel at home in this show.

I see you went to Moorhead State in the 80s. Have you been doing theatre in the Twin Cities ever since? If not, what drew you here and to do theatre here?

Moorhead State – in northwestern Minnesota, not the one in Kentucky! I guess now it’s Minnesota State University at Moorhead or something. I graduated in 1986 (on the ‘6-year plan,’ a.k.a. “You’re out of money and need a job for a year and a half plan”). I worked on a couple of shows in that gap year – as an extra at the Guthrie in Cyrano de Bergerac and tech for the old Chimera Theater. Since graduation in ‘86 I’ve been working pretty steadily in the Cities in a variety of capacities – actor, director, technician, fight choreographer, stage manager, and now Communications Associate at Lakeshore Players in White Bear Lake. It’s interesting every once in a while to take a moment and (try to) remember all the shows and people.

I wonder if you’ve considered your evolution as an actor over the years?

I listen a heck of a lot better than I used to! I’ve always been a character actor, which I love, and years ago I would be looking for bits to get laughs. I still do that, but now I do it while listening more to what’s going on around me. But really, I’ve learned that “less is more.” Not that I won’t go for a cheap laugh if it presents itself. The best note I ever received during a rehearsal was “F.U. Reyburn, you magnificent bastard!” He gave me free reign in that moment and I ran with it. I still have that note somewhere.

You’ve just finished a two-show day. Where do you go and what do you do after you leave the theatre?

Home to a Tanqueray & Tonic (spring & summer) or a Manhattan (fall & winter). It always takes me a little while to wind down from a show.

Derek Dirlam: Code Name – Archie Goodwin

Right now at Park Square, you can catch the mystery-thriller of the summer, Might as Well Be Dead: A Nero Wolfe Mystery, on stage through July 30th. While the hero, Nero Wolfe, may have his name in the title, what good would he be without his loyal right-hand man? Filling that role is Archie Goodwin, a witty ladies man who works as Wolfe’s live-in assistant and aides him in the solving of mysteries. A highly skilled private investigator, it’s Goodwin who scours New York City collecting the evidence that Wolfe needs in order to solve a case. Such is the character that has filled volumes of detective fiction, but who can possibly bring this persona to life on the stage? Stepping in to do just that is actor Derek Dirlam, who has embraced the role emphatically.

 

A fan of the genre, he appreciates the expectations some fans may have in regards to Archie. Fortunately, thanks to the numerous stories author Rex Stout produced, Dirlam had plenty of varied sources to draw from. As mentioned in a previous blog about the author, Rex Stout wrote Nero Wolfe mysteries from 1934 to 1975. A remarkable span of time that was part of the greater pop cultural fascination with all things noir, pulp and hard-boiled. Think of characters like Sam Spade and you’ll know just where Dirlam is coming from in shaping the world of Archie Goodwin. He’s long been a listener of vintage radio-dramas and classic films like The Big Sleep, Double Indemnity and A Touch of Evil have proven helpful in getting into character, as well as tuning in to the music of the 1940s and ‘50s. Dirlam has created his own “Archie Playlist” that features jazz artists Buck Clayton, Coleman Hawkins and Louis Prima among others. Such a fan is he, that before being cast in Nero Wolfe, Dirlam produced his own play in the mystery genre at last year’s Fringe Festival entitled “A Study in Emerald” by Neil Gaiman, and it was combing through potential source material that he first came across the titles of Nero Wolfe.

As previously mentioned, there are about 40 years worth of Archie Goodwin to draw upon and Dirlam hopes that he’s able to flesh out his version of the character in a way that appeals to both the hard-boiled and the casual fan. Working with E.J. Subkoviak has been a wonderful experience as well, to which Dirlam says:

As the show developed, E.J. and I were able to incorporate several nuances of Archie and Wolfe’s relationship from the books that weren’t necessarily highlighted in this particular script, which I think makes the duo more interesting, and is also an added nod to the fans of the books.”

With actors like Dirlam and Subkoviak infusing Archie and Nero with such positive chemistry, there’s certainly plenty for audiences to enjoy. Full of suspicious characters, twists and turns, Might as Well Be Dead: A Nero Wolfe Mystery promises to keep those same audiences on their toes as they play their part in the mystery and get to know the one and only Archie Goodwin.

Subkoviak (left) and Dirlam (right) in Might as Well Be Dead: A Nero Wolfe Mystery plays on the proscenium stage through July 30.

Brandon Ewald in Might As Well Be Dead: A Nero Wolfe Mystery

Brandon Ewald in Might As Well Be Dead, A Nero Wolfe Mystery, at Park Square Theatre in Saint Paul, MN 2017Tell me about the characters you play. What makes you excited about portraying them?

The two characters I play are incredibly different from each other, which makes them so much fun to play. Peter Hays, actually named Paul Herrold, is an earnest and depressed individual. He is trapped between not only his love for Suki but his turmoil from being thrown out of his mother’s business 11 years prior. He desperately wants to protect Suki at all costs, and that’s why he takes the fall of the murder for her. He has a troubled history but when it comes down to it, he’s a young man who only wants to do right by people. Johnny Keems is a freelance P.I. often hired by Nero Wolfe. He is flashy, vain, and generally thinks he’s brighter than he is. He’s not incompetent by any means. After all, Wolfe does use him a lot. He always tries to one-up Archie and he can never quite get there, but it sure is fun to annoy Archie whenever he gets the chance.

What’s makes this play different from other plays you’ve done recently?

The biggest thing that makes this play so unique from anything I’ve done recently is that it’s a brand new play. The script was changed and molded by not only the playwright and director, but by the cast as well. It’s an opportunity to put something forth that has never been done before. It’s always fun to hear people say, “My character wouldn’t have known this,” or “How could he have done that?” We get to be a part of this mystery and figure out this story together.

It seems to mix comedy with suspense. How do you treat that combination?

It’s a fun play in that we have a great mixture of both comedy and suspense. It’s fun for us, and it’s fun for the audience to join us for all the twists and turns. The best thing you can do when blending these genres is to just play each moment honestly and in the moment. If things get too tricky and “nudge, nudge, wink, wink” to the audience, there’s a good chance you’ll lose them.

Tell me about your training. I see you majored in Theatre trained at the Globe. Do you try to do contemporary work as much as classical work?

It’s true, I received my training from Shakespeare’s Globe in London. I have a great love of the classics, and it’s a place I always thought I’d have to travel to and train at. Just as important, I got my theatrical start training and performing improv at the Brave New Workshop. We can learn from and enjoy both the old and the new, and I think it’s so important for any actor to be exposed to a multitude of disciplines. 

How about your work as a fight choreographer? I’ve always generally thought that’s the coolest theatre gig. What’s it like teaching people how fight, how to handle themselves, how to handle their weapons?

Working as a fight choreographer is one of the most challenging and rewarding things about working in the theatre. Peter [Moore, director] is another well-established fight choreographer, and it was an honor, and a surprise, that he asked me to head up the fight. The biggest thing to remember is that it’s not all about choreographing something with cool and flashy moves, but you have to keep the fight in the world of the story. It’s still a part of the storytelling process and it’s something that really gets the audience excited.

It’s not a movie. These actors have to be athletes and perform these moves for you every night. It can tricky with weapons, especially if an actor is not familiar with one. I always start slow and work from the ground up with each actor. Like anything, it’s a process, and the way to be sure that everyone is safe and comfortable is to work in steps.

The three biggest rules (in order) of fight choreography is safety, serving the story, and looking good while you do it. Oh yeah, and breathing. Breathe or die.

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