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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

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)

Chatting with the Master Sleuth Himself!

Actor E.J. Subkoviak, who is playing Nero Wolfe this summer in Might as Well Be Dead: A Nero Wolfe Mystery, graciously offered his insight into not only the character but to just how vast and enthralling the world of this play is!

1. What is like to play such a renowned character? You’re second time around, do you find yourself discovering new layers behind the character?

I first played Rex Stout’s armchair detective Nero Wolfe at Park Square a few years ago in The Red Box, and it was a real honor, as this was the first time Mr. Wolfe had ever been commissioned to appear onstage anywhere.

He’s very much an American Sherlock Holmes in many ways. (In fact, there are those devoted fans who believe – yes, they did the math – that Wolfe may be the love child of Holmes and his Jersey girlfriend Irene Adler. They even took the Jim Garrison conspiracy approach and noted that ShERlock HOLmes and NERo WOLfe both have the ER/OL in the middle of their names. Mr. Stout neither confirmed nor denied this theory, but was obviously flattered that people had put so much time and research into something he created.)

Like Holmes, he’s an eccentric genius who hides his emotions, and has his own addictions. (Holmes has his cocaine; Wolfe has his lavish gourmet meals.) And being a man of mystery, there is so much mystery about the man himself. Why is yellow his favorite color? (His dwellings look like Colonel Mustard’s house.) What’s with the orchid fascination? (We never see it onstage, but he has a rooftop full of them.) Why is he so hard on women? Why won’t he leave the house? Did something happen to him in his past life as an Albanian spy to create this corpulent grump? These are questions that can’t help but come to mind, and even after so many books, Stout leaves them as questions. What we know about Wolfe we know only through the eyes of his young protege, Archie Goodwin, who narrates the books and the plays.

In playing Wolfe a second time, I find he’s very much in my blood now. Based on the original reaction of the “Wolfe Pack” (the Rex Stout fan club – their name, not mine, I swear) and Rebecca Stout-Bradbury, Stout’s daughter and one of the heads of his estate, I didn’t see how I could change a thing I was doing. The only thing I looked for this time around were opportunities to show hints – and in such a plot-heavy venue as mysteries are, all we have room for are hints – of things Wolfe may be too afraid to reveal explicitly, so that he becomes slightly more than just a robust super-computer expunging deductions and menus. In this case, I found some brief moments in his interactions with Archie Goodwin (his Dr. Watson) that suggest he’s quietly aware that while he’s always barking orders and often scolding his protege’s antics, Archie’s the closest thing to family as he’ll ever have, which ties in somewhat with Archie’s final speech that invokes the title of the show. Again, it doesn’t play into the mystery as a whole, or the puzzle the audience is obviously attentive to, but it’s an attempted step up with the character in this second episode.

E.J. Subkoviak

2. Are you a fan of this genre and had you always known about Nero Wolfe? When did you first discover the series?

Indeed, mystery and thrillers have always been my favorite genre, even as a boy. While everyone else in my 3rd grade class was reading Judy Blume, I was reading the adventures of Encyclopedia Brown, boy detective, and trying to use my eight year-old wits to help him solve such mind-boggling capers as “The Case of the Broken Globe”.

Nero Wolfe was a name I was somewhat familiar with, perhaps remembering the William Conrad TV series that aired during my youth. When our director Peter Moore first told me he was considering me for the role, I said, “Oh yeah, isn’t he like a judge or a lawyer or something?” And he said, “No, he’s a detective. Look him up.” So I did – I googled “Nero Wolfe” and got my answer: “Morbidly obese private detective…” I had to stop for a minute and look at myself in the mirror at that point and do a little crying, but it wasn’t long before I became very intrigued by everything else I read about the guy.

3. What are some influences you draw upon as an actor taking on a great detective role such as this?

The Nero Wolfe books are, to me, a nice combination of the hard-boiled detective stories with the Jessica Rabbits holding a gun on the cover, and the more elegant Agatha Christie-like drawing room mysteries that always had the detective gathering all the suspects at the end and slowly, methodically, revealing who the killer is and how they did it. Being a mystery lover, I loved watching such TV sleuths as Stacy Keach’s Mike Hammer and David Suchet’s Hercule Poirot.

Other than that, I try not to do too much, and I just try to remain confident that our playwright Joseph Goodrich is right when he tells me, “You ARE Nero Wolfe.” That takes a little pressure off me acting-wise, but puts a lot of pressure on me to start some kind of exercise regiment.

4. What’s your favorite part of the show and what do you think audiences will enjoy the most?

My favorite parts to play are the moments that highlight the differences between Wolfe and Archie. Archie is Wolfe’s Dr. Watson, but what sets this team apart from the Holmes/Watson relationship, and indeed adds some fun and interest, is not only the age difference and the mentor/protege picture, but that these two are really cut from two very different cloths. They’re an odd couple solving mysteries together, and when their tactics, behaviors and vocabulary clash, it makes for some often laugh-inducing fun. Archie is also a much more outgoing, dare I say likable guy, so to see him throw grouchy Mr. Wolfe a little sunshine now and again is rewarding, especially in the middle of so much murder and mayhem. I really think this relationship is at the heart of what makes the Nero Wolfe stories fun enough to give it a real fan base.

Peter Moore [director], always finds a group of terrific and talented people, and this is no exception. I am delighted to be working again with so many old friends and many new ones, cast and crew alike. Wolfe would call them “satisfactory”, which, to the rest of us, means “exceeds all expectations”.

 

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.

The Case of the Mystery Writers Producers’ Club

  1. It was a dark and stormy night

Robyn Hansen, blog writer, Park Square Theatre, Saint Paul, MNTwo men stood outside the door of the Hansen-Clarey home. The glow from the front porch light revealed one man to be rather neatly and nattily dressed; the other, a bit more bohemian and slightly disheveled. They were Michael-jon Pease and Richard Cook, the executive director and artistic director of Park Square Theatre respectively. Why had they come? What was on their minds?

They had come with a scintillating proposal for longtime Park Square supporters Robyn Hansen and John Clarey: Would they consider being the producers for a Park Square play? Would they provide the funding of a show sans the day-to-day responsibilities of production? Would they consider supporting this concept that had never before been attempted at Park Square? And, while we’re asking . . . how about if we focus on the mysteries with which Park Square traditionally closes its seasons, since John is a mystery lover?

When the door opened wide, the men stepped inside, never suspecting how their action that evening would impact Park Square Theatre for years to come.

  1. The plot thickens

John and Robyn heard the two men out. Then this socially-inclined couple suggested a counter-proposal: Let’s assemble a large group of like-minded friends to create a producers’ club.

And the Mystery Writers Producers’ Club was born!

Members contribute 1,000 dollars or more per household to help underwrite new productions, new adaptations and new scripts. In return, Club members enjoy special access to behind-the-scenes events, such as production and concept meetings, rehearsals, an opening night dinner with the director (and writer for new commissions) and much more.

 

  1. Page turner

In the 2013-2014 season, the Mystery Writers Producers’ Club presented its first world premiere commission, The Red Box, adapted by playwright Joseph Goodrich from the fourth of 33 Nero Wolfe mysteries written by Rex Stout from the 1930s to 1970s. Peter Moore directed The Red Box, and actor E. J. Subkoviak perfectly embodied the role of the brilliant and eccentric armchair detective.

The Red Box proved to be a huge success, spurring the Club to offer in the following season Sherlock Holmes and the Ice Palace Murders, an adaption by local playwright Jeffrey Hatcher of local author Larry Millett’s novel of the same name.

Audiences were then treated to the musical mystery, Murder for Two, in the middle of the 2015-2016 season. Directed by Randy Reyes, this unique production featured just two talented actors on stage, Nic Delcambre and Andrea Wollenberg, playing all the roles.

Not only have Club productions been delightful, but Club activities connected to its shows also proved to be so informatively and socially fun that a member declared, “It’s the best 1,000 dollar donation I’ve ever made!”

 

  1. Surprise ending

This season, courtesy of the Mystery Writers Producers’ Club, Park Square Theatre features a second world premiere commission of a Nero Wolfe mystery, Might As Well Be Dead, on its Proscenium Stage from June 16 to July 30. The production brings back the winning team of Goodrich-Moore-Subkoviak as playwright, director and Nero Wolfe, respectively, in what Park Square describes as a case that “draws the detective into a web of deceit and regrets.”

The plot: A wealthy St. Paul business owner wants to make amends to her son Paul, whom she’d thrown out of the family business 11 years before. But where is he? Does he even want to be found?  And could he be the same Paul who is currently on trial for murder?

Might As Well Be Dead will be another fun ride for sure! And the Mystery Writers Producers’ Club lives on for another surprise ending and others yet to come.

 

——

Note: Some dramatic license was taken in the telling of this tale.

Photographs of members of the Mystery Writers Producers’ Club (from top to bottom): Robyn Hansen; Wes & Dierdre Kramer (photographed by Rachel Wandrei); Kay Thomas & Mimi Stake (photographed by Rachel Wandrei); Jim Rustad & Kay Thomas (photographed by Rachel Wandrei); Kay Thomas, Jim Rustad, Ken Lewis & Diana Lewis (photographed by Rachel Wandrei)

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