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Posts Tagged Nero Wolfe

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)

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 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.

Putting up with the Universe

Rex Stout was among a handful of authors in the pre-World War II era to document the grimy underbelly of the American dream, and his six dozen works are cited along with Dashiell Hammett’s and Raymond Chandler’s as among the most influential of the century. The “pulp” genre had inauspicious beginnings in the nineteenth century, as writers in newly urbanized environments poured out sordid crime stories printed on cheap paper (thus the name). The form demonstrated (and exacerbated) a tenacious anxiety that cities were havens of evil filled with dens of iniquity run by vile sinners. (It would come to be known as “hardboiled,” like an egg cooked so long it’s tough on the outside and good luck getting in.)

The genre has been criticized in recent years for its celebration of half-drunk, perpetually penniless carousing bachelors. (From Chandler’s The Long Goodbye: “Alcohol is like love. The first kiss is magic, the second is intimate, the third is routine. After that you take the girl’s clothes off.”) Such casual misogyny has given rise to queer readings – Freud would have much to say about so many men and oh so many guns. Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin are markedly kinder (and more sober) than Hammett’s Continental Op and Chandler’s Philip Marlowe, but the duo still revel in the muck of humanity. Like other gumshoes, Wolfe and Goodwin will find trouble when trouble doesn’t find them first. (It usually does.)

Perhaps the most distinctive (and parodied) aspect of hardboiled fiction is its language: euphemisms, sharp turns in logic, extended metaphors that can be sharp or languorous but always precise. From Chandler: “He snorted and hit me in the solar plexus.” From Hammett: “I haven’t laughed so much over anything since the hogs ate my kid brother.” And, of course, Nero Wolfe: “I have no talents. I have genius or nothing.” Such conflations and contradictions suggest a world collapsing, a blurring of good and evil, the rise of an anti-hero – and not a small amount of delight in the mounting rubble.

The genre’s glee with the unseemly parts of human nature – boundless greed, lust, and corruption – would be quickly tempered. The cloying normalcy of I Love Lucy, Leave It to Beaver, and The Andy Griffith Show was a salve after the devastation of the Depression and World War II. By the 1960s, readers had turned away from one of America’s most dominant literary genres as political turmoil demanded more urgent forms.

But sleuths are still sleuthing – and not just Garrison Keillor’s Guy Noir. Robert Mosley’s Easy Rawlins and Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch tangle with evil with the kind of lazy indignation that kept Philip Marlowe soaked in gin. Sue Grafton’s alphabet soup and Gillian Flynn’s recent novels have enhanced the form with women crime-solvers who’d rather be home alone, and probably in the dark. They’re all (mostly) welcome reminders that we still need unlikely heroes. Or, as Nero tells Archie in The Red Box, “I cannot remake the universe, and must therefore put up with this one.”

Might as Well Be Dead - Nero Wolfe Cover by Bill English - Viking Press

Might as Well Be Dead – A Nero Wolfe Mystery Novel. Cover Design by Bill English, Viking Press 1956.

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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