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The Everyday Emergency

In 2010, Park Square produced Painting Churches, Tina Howe’s play about a woman who returns home to paint and help her parents. The father’s memory has begun to fail, and in its place are snatches of Irish and American poems. In the program for that production, I wrote about Mary Pipher’s book Another Country: Navigating the Emotional Terrain of Our Elders, in which the author describes how we have no frame of reference for dealing with those who are growing old. She writes, “We have few road maps to help us navigate the new lands [of aging].” In Howe’s play, the couple are relocating to Cape Cod from Boston’s Beacon Hill (current home to John Kerry, former home to Carly Simon, Ted Kennedy, and Uma Thurman). The Churches had the privilege to confront aging with substantial resources, and that’s what makes Colman Domingo’s play feel so vital.

Donnie and Shelly in the kitchen

Ricardo Beaird as Donnie and Yvette Ganier as older sister Shelly in DOT (Photo by Petronella J. Ytsma)

In 2010, I did not note that I knew of Pipher’s book because it was on my family’s bookshelf, alongside Eldercare for Dummies. As Pipher points out, and as anyone knows who has experienced that traumatic instant when a loved one turns to you and asks, “Who are you?” we’re all dummies when it comes to eldercare. (If you prefer, there’s an Idiot’s Guide.) As Dot suggests, caring for prior generations is a nearly inescapable experience, and some who do escape it may incite resentment and anxiety in other family members – hence Shelly’s exasperation.

 

Just as in the play, families debate whether to care for aging loved ones in-home (and whose home) or to pursue other accommodations (“the home”). The stress of these conversations (or negotiations, or outright conflict) is compounded because most families make these decisions with highly constrained finances. Tina Howe’s play is a moving portrait of a family bonding. Domingo’s play is an unnerving mirror. Shelly feels that “every day is an emergency,” and for so many of us who have been in the position of the Shealy children, we may feel that way, too. As we care for the aging and ailing, every second risks a trauma, and every day offers an emergency. We may judge Shelly for the measures she takes to give herself a break, but we can understand her.

From Oedipus to King Lear, from A Streetcar Named Desire to August: Osage County, the family reunion has been a major impetus in Western drama, as far-flung family are forced home to confront crises. And crises, according to Pipher, “make everyone more who they really are.” At least Blanche DuBois knew not to head to the Kowalskis’ just in time for Christmas: holiday traditions and expectations – not to mention sheer numbers of people – can trouble even the most delicately balanced families. But Dot is not a tragedy, and neither is aging, and it’s no surprise the Shealys’ emergency ebbs when the family try to understand one another.

 


Dotty and Jackie on the livingroom sofa with Christmas tree

Cynthia Jones-Taylor as Dotty with Anna Lakin as close family friend Jackie (Photo by Petronella J. Ytsma)

Hot off its hit New York run, Dot runs through January 7, 2018 on the Proscenium Stage at Park Square Theatre.

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Charles Hubbell: The Claudius of Clout

Charles Hubbell is an actor currently performing in Park Square Theatre’s Hamlet. In this production, he portrays the conniving Claudius, killer of Hamlet’s father – usurper of the throne. Such a cool and calculating character demands a smart and experienced actor and Hubbell fits the role perfectly. Not only does he have experience with the play, but actually doing it at Park Square before, albeit as a different character. Looking back on the show, directed by Mary Finnerty, he recalls:

I played the role of Laertes. I was an insufferable hack then. Long hair, arrogant and rebellious. I regret I caused a lot of mischief during that production. Now I’m back as Claudius which is great fun because I’m bringing my years of experience and hopefully some maturity to the role. It’s fun to do those same Laertes/Claudius scenes I did then [once] as the hot headed youth but now I’m the cool, calculating King. 

Even when sitting in on a recent rehearsal, I would definitely vouch for this sense of maturity.

Charles Hubbell as Claudius (Photo by Amy Anderson)

A native of the Twin Cities, Hubbell was born and raised in Golden Valley and Crystal, respectively, before studying at the University of Minnesota. In addition to working his way through all the characters in Hamlet, he works as a talent agent for Agency Models and Talent, finding actors and models for the commercial market. His long experience in the independent movie world, as well as voiceover work, television and web shows, lends itself quite naturally to finding work for others in the field. Not only that, but he is an accomplished puppeteer and loves working with puppet teams to create webisodes and live comedy shows. These ain’t your typical kid-friendly puppets shows, however, as Hubbell prefers more grown up comedy, for those who enjoy Jim Henson-styled puppetry. His work has been seen on the web with Transylvania Television and at The Brave New Workshop with Tipsy Kangaroo’s Naughty Puppet Review.

Don’t expect that same level of irreverence with Claudius, however. As you take in Park Square’s production, you’ll be hooked by a very Machiavellian figure. Not just a politician, but a strategist, who is playing a long game of chess he intends to win. Perhaps not unlike many real-life figures throughout history, he is willing to challenge the divine and bend the will of his subjects.

Tickets and more information at parksquaretheatre.org

Adapted and directed by Joel Sass and featuring Charles Hubbell as ‘Claudius”. 

Tinne Rosenmeier is Polonia

Recently I had the supreme pleasure of speaking with actor, Tinne Rosenmeier, who is playing Polonia in Park Square Theatre’s production of Hamlet. Ms. Rosenmeier had a lot to say not only about the production itself, but how re-imagining the character “Polonius” as a woman helps bring fresh life to an established classic.

Photo by Nancy Hauck

So what’s it been like playing a character such as Polonia? What can audiences come away with after seeing your portrayal?

Polonia, yes.  WOW!  First of all, there’s the thrill of the opportunity, right? That made me giddy and rather flighty during our first week of rehearsals.  Then, there’s the history of the role, our expectations of who and what Polonius is: stuffy, fusty, chatty, a bit impotent and comical. Polonius is deeply embedded in the masculine story, history, and culture of our cultural understanding of Hamlet, the play. What happens when we shift away from that?

What we’re discovering is that Polonia  (the concept), works just fine.  As a power broker, I have many contemporary politicians to study – their poise, strength, and steel. There’s the reality we face as working women and mothers: how many of us can still be involved in the day to day of raising our children?  Polonia is and has been a working mother, and that very contemporary reality never confronted, and is unlikely to ever confront, a man playing a Polonius.  We still live in a society that stretches women to do it all. At the moment (though there may be some nuances we haven’t reached yet in rehearsals) Polonia has made career choices to serve her king(s), and she isn’t much given to self-doubt or regret.

As a mother, there are insights into Ophelia’s plight that don’t surface for a “Polonius.” The advice that she quit her crush on Hamlet hinges on his freedoms as a man and a prince — ‘with a longer tether may he walk/Than may be given you.’  What a rich vein to plumb. I think it is a mark of her lack of self-knowledge that she doesn’t recognize her own complicity in Ophelia’s trap, and despair.

When did you first get involved with Park Square?

My first audition for Park Square was in 1984, when I was embarrassed to learn that a Shakespearean sonnet wasn’t the same as an audition monologue.  I felt pretty lucky when I got a call to step into a part another actress vacated, in Arthur Miller’s The American Clock.   Later that season, or the next, I was again called in as a replacement, in The Master Builder, with Bill Kimes.  I was invited to join the resident acting company Park Square had for a few years, and spent a few seasons working here.

It was an amazing experience, but I learned the limits of untrained acting.  It was the kind and generous advice of Richard Cook, plus the encouragement of Betty Burdick (who played Mrs. Master Builder) that propelled me to seek training.  I needed a process.  It’s a deep satisfaction and honor to return to Park Square with technique and process, and to develop this role.

My family moved back to Saint Paul in 2000. I just couldn’t break in as an actress at that point, and I took myself over to Hamline to get my teaching license.  Over the last 13 years I’ve been teaching around the Twin Cities. I was so proud and excited to bring students to Park Square’s education programs and productions.  The Build a Moment experience is the cleanest introduction to the power of theater design and tech I’ve every run across. I also served on Park Square’s  Education Advisory Board for a few years, and raise my hat to Mary Finnerty and the whole group.  I believe in theater education, and Park Square’s contribution is unmatched and indispensable.

Tinne Rosenmeier is a Minnesota-native, born in St. Paul and a graduate of Carleton College and holds an MA in Educational Theatre from New York University. She also attended the National Shakespeare Conservatory in New York City. In addition to Park Square Theatre, she has been seen on stage at Pangea World Theatre (The House of Bernarda Alba) and Savage Umbrella (The Awakening), among many others. When she is not performing or teaching, her interests include playing with her dog, feeding the chickens, gardening and quilting when the weather turns cold.

See Ms. Rosenmeier in Hamlet, on the Proscenium Stage through November 11! The play is adapted and directed by Joel Sass.

 

Have a Laugh with Carolyn Pool

When Henry and Alice: Into the Wild opens the season at Park Square there will be a familiar face in the cast – Carolyn Pool! A veteran of not only Park Square, Pool has been seen on many stages in Minneapolis and Saint Paul working with such esteemed companies as Illusion Theatre, Penumbra, Theatre Mu, Pillsbury House and countless new works at the Playwrights’ Center. She says, however, that Park Square has been a defining feature of her artistic work with such credits as August, Osage County, Proof, The Sisters Rosenweig, and Born Yesterday. The first time she tread the Park Square boards it wasn’t even at the current location in the Hamm Building, but at the old Lowertown venue in School for Wives.

Now Pool brings her talents to Henry and Alice along with fellow stage cohort, John Middleton. The two are not strangers, having appeared on stage together before at Park Square. That was in Dead Man’s Cell Phone where the two’s chemistry was duly noted. When asked about what she hopes the audience is able to take away from the play, she says aptly:

“I hope they laugh! I also hope they see some of themselves in these characters and maybe realize that they are not alone in their experiences. Telling stories truthfully and beautifully even if those stories are sometimes difficult is my greatest passion as an actor. And, when I can make people laugh and feel good too, that is the most wonderful feeling.” 
Carolyn Pool and John Middleton in the rehearsal hall last week (photo by Connie Shaver)

Making people laugh is definitely something Carolyn Pool has made a career of. If you’re well-tuned into the Twin Cities theatre scene you have probably heard about her two-woman shows, (co-created with Shanan Custer) 2 Sugars, Room for Cream and Sometimes There’s Wine. The former earned the duo a 2013 Ivey Award when it played at the New Century Theatre. Pool and Custer are frequent collaborators who are always looking for projects to write, act and laugh in together.

Indeed having a good time is almost certain when she takes the stage with Middleton and Melanie Wermacher. Mark your calendars and plan to join in on the fun on the Boss Stage September 15 – October 22.

 

Carolyn Pool, John Middleton and Melanie Wermacher  in the rehearsal hall. (photo by Connie Shaver)

Role Reprisal: John Middleton

John Middleton

Starting the 2017-2018 season off with a bang is Henry and Alice: Into the Wild by Michele Riml and directed by Mary M. Finnerty. A few of those names may sound familiar to the Park Square faithful, as this delightful rom-com is a sequel to that other delightful rom-com, Sexy Laundry, which brought the house down in 2014. Finnerty also directed the precursor and wouldn’t you know it, John Middleton is also back in the role of Henry, while this time around Carolyn Pool plays his counterpart , Alice. Melanie Wehrmacher rounds out the cast as an interloping family member.

I was able to ask Middleton a few questions about what it’s like getting to act the same character in a new play. After all, that’s not something that happens very often in the theatre. Unlike a movie sequel, you do not have the opportunity to “go back” and catch the first one. For him, the biggest difference will be the fact that in Sexy Laundry he had the even more unique experience to act opposite his real-life wife, Charity Jones. While that may not be the case for Henry and Alice, he is excited to work with friend Carolyn Pool who he says is, “… a terrific actress who’s carried me through productions before – including Dead Man’s Cell Phone here at Park Square.” That production was in 2010, so that gives you an idea of how familiar audiences should be with Middleton. Most recently, he was seen on the Andy Boss Thrust Stage in Idiot’s Delight by Girl Friday Productions, playing the wily, straight-talking American.

 

Sexy Laundry with Charity Jones. Photo by Petronella Ytsma 

But how far can we go? Middleton’s very first production at Park Square in 1991’s The Marriage of Figaro, and while he may not have had many lines he distinctly remembers moving a lot of chairs around. That was only a year after he first came to the Twin Cities as an actor. Hailing from Wisconsin, he landed a role playing a pirate in a production of Peter Pan at the Children’s Theatre Company and liked Minnesota so much he decided to stay. I believe I can speak for the community here when I say we’re certainly glad he did! Other recent Park Square Theatre credits include: Calendar Girls, Romeo and Juliet, The School for Lies, and American Family.

As you can see, Henry and Alice: Into the Wild is but the latest in many wonderful turns on the Park Square boards for John Middleton. As we herald the start of the new season, let’s revisit the familiar world of Sexy Laundry and the actor who brought it to life then as he will now.

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.

Addie’s Delight

Playing a part in Idiot’s Delight from Girl Friday Productions at Park Square is Adelin Phelps, who portrays the character Mrs. Cherry. I was able to catch up with her and ask her some of what she thought about the show and the relevance it can hold in our 21st century world.

From Madison, Wisconsin, she attended Coe College in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, receiving her B.A. in acting. Immediately after graduation, she moved on up to the Twin Cities to pursue a career in the theatre. In her time here she has firmly established herself as a performer and collaborator, working with such noted companies as Minnesota Jewish Theatre, History Theatre, Theatre Latte Da, Walking Shadow and Frank Theatre. If that’s not enough, she is a core and founding member of Transatlantic Love Affair, a group that has earned a bevy of recognition in recent years. She now finds herself within the ranks of Girl Friday Productions and the grand cast of Idiot’s Delight – Robert Sherwood’s prophetic satire on the state of the world just prior to the outbreak of World War II. This marks her debut with Girl Friday, and her second time on a Park Square stage (following 2012’s King Lear).

While definitely not from the world of medieval England, Mrs. Cherry does happen to be a Brit among the band of internationals holed up in the Alpine hotel in which Idiot’s Delight takes place. Young and newly married to the dashing Mr. Cherry (Gabriel Murphy), she must reconcile the joys of kissing, dancing and abundant love with the stark realities of encroaching war. Those themes certainly lend themsevles to the political strife currently swirling around the world, not just at home, and how we are able to overcome that discord is a central question of the piece. As Phelps says, The need for humor, the struggle for an open, brave heart, the importance to understand history, and connecting with other humans… that draws me as a person to the project.”

Especially the benefits of connecting with other humans is apparent in Sherwood’s play. An ensemble cast of characters all born in different countries are suddenly forced into company with each other, thanks to the actions of their own governments. In a sense of irony, the very people they should be at war with become their friends within the walls of the hotel.

All these international characters is most exciting to Phelps who relishes the chance to use her sense of play and imagination in creating a dialect or new physicality to bring her role to life. And the dancing! There’s much for any actor to sink their teeth into and Phelps is eager to share that infectious zeal with the audiences. Indeed, viewers are in for a treat when they take their seats this summer. Phelps has been delighted to work with Girl Friday Productions and director, Craig Johnson in getting to tell such a story!

 

 

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”.

 

Making the Past Present

Something you’ll hear a lot about in regards to Idiot’s Delight, is the history of the events taking place and how it can arguably be a mirror to today’s world. If history does indeed repeat itself, then can this play serve as a guide book to our future? Perhaps not even a guidebook, but a warning? With stakes that high, I wouldn’t recommend missing out on this one!

Dramaturg Kit Gordon. (Courtesy photo)

Helping to make sense of all this, for the actors as well as the audience, is the role of the dramaturg. Serving in this role is long time Girl Friday dramaturg, Kit Gordon, who has been involved with the company since the earliest days. She is also a company member of Theatre Pro Rata and has served as their resident dramaturg for a number of years as well. 

What skills lend themselves to being a good dramaturg? Certainly a passion for history and theatre, but also finding a joy in academic research. Gordon studied all of it in college and worked in the humanities, English literature and women’s studies. She then went on to complete her PhD in English, with a focus on Shakespeare within her own experiences as a teacher, writer and theatre practitioner. Up until 2013, her day job was an undergraduate academic adviser at the University of Minnesota.

When it comes to dramaturgy, Gordon’s loves the research but is quick to point out that her job is “not to have all the answers but to know where to find them”, as stated in a 2014 interview with Chris Hewitt in the Pioneer Press

I asked her to expand upon some of the themes of Idiot’s Delight and comment on all of the drawing-a-parallel-to-our-modern-world talk that’s been going on with this play. Echoing sentiments of Adelin Phelps and Craig Johnson, she says:

 

Our world is in some ways more complex than it was in 1936, but people are still people – and some of them are dangerous. While the parallels are not exact, the emotions that spring from our fears about what might happen (with ISIS, with North Korea, with radical political movements in the U.S.) are similar to those felt by characters in the play… I think that by exploring the dilemmas of the characters in the play, we explore our own.”

 

No matter what the “big picture” is, it seems to all boil down to the people in the room and the relationships they hold with each other. That’s what turns a good story into a riveting drama and what Girl Friday excels so much at bringing to life. Like any meaningful work of art, this play has an ability to make you think. Oh, you’ll laugh, for sure. Maybe so hard as to produce a tear, but you’re still bound to come away with a new sense of humanity – how special it really is to be able to live and love in peace.

You can check out Girl Friday’s website here and see the online study guide compiled by Kit Gordon! https://www.girlfridayproductions.org/upcoming-show

 

Craig Johnson on Reviving a Classic

In anticipation of Idiot’s Delight, this year’s offering from Girl Friday Productions at Park Square, I wanted to get to know more about some of the creative souls behind the show. Who are they and what part do they play in bringing such a production to life?

In combing through the wildly impressive credits of actors and designers, I gravitated to the person at the helm and decided to ask him a few questions first. As the director, Craig Johnson, is no rookie when it comes to either the theatre, Park Square or Girl Friday. According to his profile on Minnesotaplaylist.com, he’s a veteran of 200 productions, including 52 at Park Square over the years. This includes multiple awards and recognitions, especially for his work with Girl Friday Productions which include Our Town (director), Street Scene (director), Camino Real (actor) and The Matchmaker (director) which was one of the first shows to grace the Andy Boss Thrust at Park Square a couple of summers ago. This year, now he is in charge of Idiot’s Delight by Robert Sherwood and offers his take on the play.

What about this play drew you to the project? What speaks to you as an artist and perhaps, a “normal” person?

Idiot’s Delight…um…delighted me on several levels when I first read it. I have a nostalgic love for these big, sleek, well-constructed, entertaining yet thoughtful, limousine-like plays that Broadway produced in its heyday between the wars. It was a time when a lot of people could afford to go to the theater regularly. Of course this was mainly people in the New York area, but it was a wide swath of the population, and the good plays usually went out on tour around the country and got picked up by resident stock companies in places like Saint Paul and Minneapolis. I like dusting off these old plays whose names and authors I recognize but have never seen or read, and hoping they still have something to say to us. And I like when one of these plays, like Idiot’s Delight, still resonates. It connects us to our shared theatrical history that broadens that stream beyond yet another revival of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Uncle Vanya, or The Importance of Being Earnest — just to name three plays I absolutely love!

You’re a history buff, are there parallels to our current world situation? If so, how do you highlight this in the production? (Maybe without giving too much away!)

Author Robert Sherwood wrote Idiot’s Delight in 1936, during the depths of the Great Depression, when many were becoming increasingly alarmed by the threat of European fascism in Italy and Germany. He imagines how another world war might occur–and was startlingly accurate in some ways to actual events just a few years in the future. That alone is fascinating. But the play also looks at the toxic brew of populism, nationalism, xenophobia, and militarism, and how those forces can lead a culture away from civil society toward barbarism. In that, sadly, many might see echoes of current events making headlines in the US and Europe. So the play works as a sober cautionary tale.

You’ve worked a ton with Girl Friday Productions. What keeps you coming back to GFP?

Well, I’ve known GFP artistic director Kirby Bennett for many years — she’s a friend, neighbor, and colleague. I so admire the unique niche she’s carved out in the rich theatrical ecosystem of the Twin Cities. GFP does one show every two years. They are large-scale shows that most small professional companies wouldn’t touch because of the personnel expense. But Kirby’s care and thoughtful planning is much appreciated by actors and designers. The scripts, too, carry an interesting thread — they are usually about what it means to be an American. They’re plays that still carry meaning and hope for us today, even though they cluster in that rich period of American writing from the 1920s to the 1950s. Some productions like Our Town revisit familiar texts, but others, like Camino Real and Street Scene are like Idiot’s Delight plays once heralded that we think warrant coming off the bookshelf and having another turn in the spotlight.

I should probably get your basic info: Where do you come from in life and artistically? Your college/ training, hometown, etc.

I was born and raised in Saint Paul — though because of my Dad’s job with 3M we lived overseas in Tokyo and Belgium for several years when I was growing up. I’ve been doing plays since my triumphant debut in Green Eggs and Ham in 6th grade. I went to the University of Minnesota, and after a long career doubling my theater work with my job managing the James J. Hill House for the Minnesota Historical Society, I now focus on acting, directing and teaching full time. And love every minute of it. Also I’ve done 52 shows at Park Square going back to 1979, so this is like home to me.

What do you want audiences to come away thinking and/or feeling after seeing this show?

I hope audiences appreciate the thoughtful balance of entertainment and social commentary that Sherwood offers. There are show tunes to enjoy, a rich tapestry of quirky characters to laugh at, and a poignant love story. But there are important questions to ponder: How should Americans interact with the rest of the world? What are the forces that harden us against our neighbors? What does it mean to close a border — to keep some inside and others out? How do we balance freedom and security?

There you have it, folks, I could not have said it any better myself!

Come see just what Johnson means this summer at Park Square where Girl Friday Productions will be presenting Idiot’s Delight on the Andy Boss Thrust Stage June 29 – July 23.

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