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Posts Tagged Rex Stout

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

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)

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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