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Posts Tagged Might As Well Be Dead: A Nero Wolfe Mystery

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.

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.

The Art of Disappearing

Actor Michael Paul Levin has a knack for disappearing into his characters on stage. When he plays Otto Frank in The Diary of Anne Frank, he is Anne’s strong and gentle father. In Of Mice and Men, he is the loyal and compassionate friend, George, to the vulnerable Lenny; and in The Soul of Gershwin: The Musical Journey of an American Klezmer, he channels the brilliant George Gershwin. Currently, Michael transforms into the ever pissed off Inspector Cramer in Might As Well Be Dead: A Nero Wolfe Mystery on Park Square Theatre’s Proscenium Stage until July 30.

Michael Paul Levin as Inspector Cramer; E. J. Subkoviak as Nero Wolfe; Derek Diriam as Archie Goodwin; Jim Pounds as Fritz
(photo by Petronella J. Ytsma)

Of course, Inspector Cramer is a fully drawn out character in Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe mysteries for Michael to emulate. However, Michael was also able to model his portrayal of him after his short-tempered father.

“He had little patience in dealing with people whom he considered to be fools,” Michael said. Inspector Cramer himself does not suffer fools gladly.

This side of Michael had not been something I’d experienced of him before, having watched him on Park Square’s stage as part of its Education Program for the past three seasons as Otto Frank and for a season as Lenny’s friend George, both incredibly patient men in very trying circumstances. He no doubt pulled from his own experiences of fatherhood–Michael has four sons–to portray Otto, but he turns out to have also done so for his role as George.

“One thing that appealed to me about Richard Cook directing Of Mice and Men was that he’d seen it in Spain where Lenny is characterized as being on an autism spectrum,” said Michael. “He had me audition for George because he knew that I have a son with autism. This created an interesting dynamic between the characters of George and Lenny.”

It seems ironic that an actor must dig deep within himself to be able to totally submerge into a character that is not him. Michael’s disappearing trick, seemingly done with ease, is a testament to his talent as an actor. The illusion of ease comes from years of practice–in fact, over 30 years for Michael. He was first awakened to acting as something he’d want to seriously pursue after seeing a production of Barefoot in the Park as a high school junior; ultimately, he’d reached the point of realizing “that I’m not qualified to do anything else.” His longevity in show business is itself a testament to his skills, not only as an actor but also as a playwright, instructor, voice artist and everything else in between.

In personally meeting Michael as himself, I encountered a man who may rather “fade into the woodworks” when not in the spotlight. He’s an unassuming man who would likely rather be left to anonymously go about his own business. Yet, he owns a hairless Chinese crested dog that cannot help but draw attention to itself and, hence, its owner, an apt symbol of the paradoxical nature of being a performer.

In all those years of watching Michael on stage, why had I not caught on before?  Michael doesn’t simply disappear on stage. What he does is much more complex: Michael hides in plain sight.

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