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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!

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.

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 Writer Behind Nero Wolfe

When I learned that Park Square was going to be producing Might as Well be Dead: A Nero Wolfe Mystery (June 16 – July 30), I was excited for the chance to do some sleuthing myself into the background of this character and series of stories that were published between 1934 and 1975. That’s a remarkable span of time for one detective, really only comparable to Sherlock Holmes (who appeared in novels and short stories between 1887 and 1927).

A portrait of Nero Wolfe by Kevin Gordon.

With such a rich history then, where are the countless movies and television series’ to depict Nero Wolfe? I believe it would be because the appeal of these stories are found in the pages of a book, the stage of a theatre, or even the homey atmosphere of a radio broadcast. Indeed, many of the Nero Wolfe mysteries have been adapted to those formats (and to be fair, there have been several successful incarnations for TV). Nonetheless, even with all the various media formats, Nero Wolfe is a flavor of detective fiction best-suited for the thinking man. Philip Marlowe, he is not, as he and his sidekick Archie Goodwin prefer to solve their crimes from the comforts of their New York City brownstone.

Like I stated in the beginning, the chance to dive deeper into the history of Nero Wolfe excited me, but even more so I wanted to get to know the man behind the character. Just who was the author and how might that real life have affected the fictional persona?

Writer Rex Stout (biography.com)

Well, to begin with that author is Rex Stout and he was an American born in Indiana in 1886 (what do you know, a year before Mr. Holmes debuted) and died in 1975 in Connecticut. While he was a lifelong writer, he actually took a number of years off from the profession to simply just make some money. His money-making venture was actually through an invention all of his own by which schools could keep track of money saved by students in accounts at the school. That made him enough money that he could then devote his full-time to the writing of short stories. I certainly know a few artists who wouldn’t mind that kind of income source! I can also see that Stout was definitely an intelligent man, who’s mind was mirrored in that of Wolfe’s.

Another element mirrored in the stories would be the captivating real life adventures of Rex Stout. As a young man he served as a yeoman in the Navy for two years, even serving aboard Theodore Roosevelt’s presidential yacht. I am sure that seeing the world in such a way, with so many colorful real-life characters inspired Stout in his writing of adventure, crime and fantasy stories.

All of those stories were written and serialized in pulp magazines such as All-Story Magazine (later Argosy). Between 1912 and 1918 he honed his skills for the Nero Wolfe stories to come. Then, even when they did come, he again wasn’t afraid to take time off of writing for pursue other interests – this time to write propaganda is support of the war effort of World War II.

For so many achievements, Rex Stout will always be defined by his greatest creation, Nero Wolfe. It turned out all right for him, for sure, and he is up there with Agatha Christie, Raymond Chandler and Arthur Conan Doyle when it comes to the Mount Rushmore of fictional crime writers. Good of Park Square then to produce a show featuring such a legacy this summer! Might as Well be Dead: A Nero Wolfe Mystery plays from June 16 to July 30 on the Proscenium Stage and features E.J. Subkoviak is the title role.

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