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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”.

 

What the Heck is Steampunk Anyway?

Playing the boards right now at Park Square Theatre is the play, The (curious case of the) Watson Intelligence, and one thing you might have noticed about the design of the show is the use of steampunk as a choice. Basically, it’s when you saw the modern costumes blended with Victorian garb and the computers infused with copper pipes and steam-powered devices. If you thought this was just a cool choice by the design team, you are just scratching the surface. It’s actually a much larger aesthetic known as “steampunk” and it has a much richer history and more widespread use than you might have first imagined.

Typical steampunk attire. Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe

Typical steampunk attire. Photo by Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe

While the term steampunk was only coined in 1987, it has since been applied to much earlier works of art such as those by Jules Verne and H.G. Wells. Yes, it is a science-fiction thing and describes the genre where the Victorian era is re-imagined with modern technology that runs on steam power. The reverse is also true where an alternate future is imagined with society having to reacquaint itself with the use of steam (usually following an apocalyptic event).  You are actually probably very familiar with the look of the genre if you’ve seen TV shows and movies such as The Wild West West and any adaptation of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. 

Beyond it’s use as a design in various works of fiction, steampunk has become it’s own subculture of living. Whole festivals and conventions are dedicated to people donning the Victorian/mechanical clothes and really giving into the conceit of living in such a world. Such events are hosted in Seattle, New Zealand and, of course, Comic-Con in San Diego. You will also most definitely run into a steampunk or two at just about any Renaissance festival, including the big one in Shakopee. Even if a city may not host a major steampunk gathering, as the genre becomes more mainstream, elements are trickling into just about every facet of art, including real-life architecture. This metro station in Paris, is a wonderful example, instantly making you feel as if you’re on board Captain Nemo’s Nautilus.

Arts et Metiers

The Arts et Metiers Metro Station in Paris. ontheluce.com

As a whole steampunk has proven to be more than just a fad or something limited to the pages of science fiction novels. As evidenced by the design of The (curious case of the) Watson Intelligence, the look and feel of steampunk has become rather commonplace. Some critics will even lambaste this move to the mainstream as the death knell for the genre. Critics always have to criticize don’t they? The fact is that the anachronistic use of clothes and gadgets  is fun and seems to have captured the imagination of the general populace, and while it isn’t to be taken too seriously, hopefully it can be used to support the themes of a play. For a story such as The (curious case of the) Watson Intelligence, where times melds and the lines are blurred between two distinctly unique eras, steampunk seems like just right aesthetic to drive home some timely ideas.

 

Park Square: It’s a Family Affair

If you have been to Park Square Theatre then you have probably met or seen our indefatigable House Manager, Jiffy Kunik, who runs a tight ship while being just the darn coolest.  I’m here now to let you know where she gets all that pluck, grit and charm – her father, John Kunik.

Kunik is currently an understudy in The Diary of Anne Frank, serving as back up for the roles of Mr. Van Daan and Mr. Dussel. He hasn’t had to go on yet, but you can bet he’s ready at a moment’s notice thanks to a lifetime in the theatre. This isn’t his first gig at Park Square but you would have to go back in time a bit to discover his previous credits…

… It was 1975 and America was preparing to celebrate the bicentennial while trying to figure out just where it was going. While the nation was coping with the end of war, Watergate and a crippling gas shortage, Saint Paul was ushering in the beginning of a new theatre called Park Square. This is where John Kunik got his start in Twin Cities theatre, working with founder Paul Mathey. They collaborated on shows such as The Roar of the Greasepaint—the Smell of the Crowd (1978), A Delicate Balance (1979) and even Kunik’s original one-act play When You Get in Trouble, Call Time Out, based on two characters who appear in Young Bucks, a full-length play he wrote in graduate school.

Young Bucks was the SIU-Carbondale entry into the American College Theatre Festival and was produced professionally in Chicago and Off-Off Broadway. A favorite memory of his in recounting the old days when the theatre  was in the Park Square Court Building across the street from Mears Park, was when a deer jumped through the window of the ground-level bar, completely destroying the glass. It was a Dixieland Bar and patrons had to wait two weeks for it to be repaired!

Photo by Stephanie K. Kunik

The father-daughter duo of John Kunik and Jiffy Kunik. Photo by Stephanie K. Kunik

Not only is Kunik a veteran of the stage, but a Viet Nam era vet as well. Right before he was set to begin graduate school, he was drafted and following basic training was sent to Seattle to await orders to go to what was surely Vietnam. Fate decided to have some fun, however, and Kunik was surprised to learn that he was headed to Anchorage, Alaska with the special services unit. His duties included being in charge of the entertainment division. As a private he was in charge of lieutenants and sergeants, directing them in various shows. One awesome story was when Kunik was directing Come Blow Your Horn with the father in the play was being acted by the head of the Criminal Investigation Division of the Alaskan Command who he was apparently investigating the guy playing his son, for drugs. What happened? Well he waited until after closing to bust him, of course!

Kunik spent a couple years in Alaska doing important work and gathering some incredible stories. When he was discharged he went back to school at Southern Illinois University and moved to Chicago to pursue a career in theatre. What brought him to the Twin Cities was a friend who came to visit and inspired him to move on a dime. Since then he has acted, directed and written shows for a plethora of companies including The Children’s Theater Company, Theatre in the Round, Lakeshore Players, Hey City Theater (home of the long running Tony ‘n Tina’s Wedding). He recently performed in The Gin Game at Pioneer Players in St. Cloud and directed The Sunshine Boys for Buffalo Community Theater. Perhaps the coolest credit on his resume is performing in a show at the Amsterdam Bar that was produced by his daughter Jiffy and entitled “Metal Not Metal” where, fully regaled in his tuxedo, he performed heavy metal lyrics as poetry….

It’s all pretty incredible and unfortunately we’ll have to wait for the autobiography to hear more. Park Square certainly loves both John and Jiffy and is happy to have them on the team!

What’s in a List?

The other week on Facebook (I know… I know…) I came upon this list that was circulating among my network of fellow artisans entitled, “25 Most Important Plays Every Actor Should Read“.

Now, first off, when I see a headline like that, I immediately roll my eyes and assume that the list is going to include the already established classics from one’s theatre history class. And guess what? I was not surprised. But here’s the thing: I didn’t expect to be surprised. Did I want to be? Sure! I would have loved to have seen playwrights like Lorraine Hansberry, Athol Fugard, or Lynn Nottage included. It’s frustrating but I’m not upset at the some website for regurgitating the same ten or twelve plays over and over again because the . argument here isn’t disputing their “worthiness” it’s that there should be more diversity among them. While that is an argument we must continue to push, we have to do it the right way. How about the next time one goes around we circulate our own “Top Plays List” so that catches fire in the community and shows up on everyone’s feed. I’m talking the works too: Published on a blog from a reputable company with pictures and everything.

GIFS.

Seriously though, how cool would it be if there if a poll were taken at Park Square Theatre to determine the “The Top Plays Every Actor Should Read”? I like it – I think I’m gonna make it happen because we don’t need some random Facebook post determine for us what’s “important” to read in the ever expanding and diversify canon of Western drama.

Park Square will let you know when we can but what do you say now? What do YOU think should be included?

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