Park Square premiere Zooms in on the suspected killer

By Anne Murphy

Actor E.J. Subkoviak didn’t have a clue that he would be offered a role in Park Square Theatre’s new mystery drama, though he is delighted to be a part of the whodunit. Riddle Puzzle Plot will play out in four weekly episodes beginning July 24. It will not appear on stage, but will be live-streamed via Zoom with the cast appearing from remote locations and an interactive component for audiences.

Subkoviak plays the Host in Riddle Puzzle Plot. A resident of Saint Paul’s Summit Hill neighborhood, he has a longstanding affinity for mystery theater and believes audiences will be enthralled with the premiere production, the brainchild of Park Square executive director C. Michael-jon Pease and Twin Cities playwright Jeffrey Hatcher.

“I thought up that title years ago,” said Hatcher, who also wrote the stage adaptations for Sherlock Holmes and the Ice Palace Murders and Sherlock Holmes and the Suicide Club. “I didn’t know what the title would be attached to, just that it would be for a mystery. When Michael-jon asked me to write a Zoom mystery, Riddle Puzzle Plot was ready and waiting.”

Pease’s request came as COVID-19 was dropping the curtain on theaters across the country. Park Square had planned to present Hatcher’s play Holmes and Watson this summer, but cancelled the production due to the pandemic.

“Like many theaters, we’re trying to find a means of reaching our audience,” said Riddle Puzzle Plot director Warren C. Bowles. “We can’t bring them into the physical space. We’re not trying to do film or video, and if we wanted to, there wouldn’t be a safe way of working together anyway. So like other theaters, we’re exploring the medium of Zoom.

“We don’t have the controls available in Zoom that we’d have in film or video,” Bowles said, “so Jeffrey has very cleverly made Zoom a basic element of the story itself. His great talent at mystery and clever scripting goes without saying. Still, this is going to be a learning experience for all of us. It’s going to be fun.”

The mystery unfolds online in Riddle Puzzle Plot. The Park Square Theatre premiere stars E.J. Subkoviak (center) as the Host, with (clockwise from top left) Sun Mee Chomet (the Femme Fatale), Shanan Custer (the Gimlet-Eyed Cynic), Alessandra Bongiardina (the Ingenue), Rodolfo Nieto (the Gigolo), Pearce Bunting (the Usual Suspect ) and Aimee K. Bryant (the Hard-Boiled Dame with a Heart of Gold). Photos courtesy of Park Square Theatre

Set during a pandemic, Riddle Puzzle Plot unfolds as a group of actors decide to hold their annual summer scavenger hunt and other theater engagements online. When a member of the cast ends up dead, the actors and the audience are tasked with finding the killer before another actor meets his or her end. Hatcher said he will be working on the script for each episode as the production proceeds, taking into account audience input.

And fun is exactly what Subkoviak thinks he will find as the Host who, according to the playbill, “is an armchair mastermind who devises the riddles, the puzzles and the perfect plot. Until the plot goes wrong.”

“Truthfully, I’ve been a mystery buff since I was a kid,” Subkoviak said. “My cousins introduced me to the board game Clue when I was about seven, and I became instantly suspicious of people who were named after colors. In grade school, my best friend and I formed our own detective agency and spent recesses looking for mysteries to solve. I later moved on to Agatha Christie and anything that could be labeled a whodunit and did The Mousetrap in high school and college.

“Needless to say, when I was asked to play detective Nero Wolfe, who I only had a passing familiarity with, it was a childhood dream come true,” said Subkoviak, referring to his starring role in the classic mystery series at Park Square. “The Wolfe stories are pretty much a mixture of a hard-boiled detective story and an Agatha Christie ‘gather up all the suspects in the sitting room so that I may reveal the killer at the end of an incredibly long monologue’ story.

“This has been a very difficult time for theater,” said Highland Park actress Sun Mee Chomet. “We’ve been so affected by the closures. We’ve gone through days of feeling overwhelmed. But we’re also creative, and this production represents a creative response to what’s happened.”

“I’d like to say I’ve become incredibly smart and deductive after so much exposure to the mystery genre, but I’m really not,” Subkoviak said. “What I did pick up from watching and reading mysteries is the drama of it, the atmosphere, the timing, and the archetypal characters that we have Christie to thank for, including those colorful Clue suspects.”

Highland Park actor Sun Mee Chomet plays the Femme Fatale in Riddle Puzzle Plot. She believes that audiences will enjoy the mystery for its fascinating characters and its similarities to the game of Clue. Rounding out the cast are Shanan Custer as the Gimlet-Eyed Cynic, Pearce Bunting as the Usual Suspect, Rodolfo Nieto as the Gigolo, Aimee Bryant as the Hard-Boiled Dame With a Heart of Gold and Alessandra Bongiardina as the Ingenue.

“This has been a very difficult time for theater,” Chomet said. “We’ve been so affected by the closures. We’ve gone through days of feeling overwhelmed. But we’re also creative, and this production represents a creative response to what’s happened.”

“This has been a dreadful time,” Hatcher agreed of the lockdown. “Ours is going to be one of the last professions to come back.” His hope is that by getting creative and presenting Riddle Puzzle Plot, Park Square will fill a void until the COVID intermission is over.

Since all four episodes of Riddle Puzzle Plot are prerecorded, audiences will have the choice each week of Zooming in on Friday or Saturday evening. Each episode is approximately an hour long. They come with a live introduction and a live post-show discussion with hints of who did it provided by the cast and the playwright. Audiences may also stream the episodes on Sundays with a recorded post-show discussion.

Tickets for the series of four episodes are $30. For reservations, visit parksquaretheatre.org.

COMMENTS TERMS OF SERVICE

The Villager welcomes comments from readers. Please include your full name and the neighborhood in which you live. Be respectful of others and stay on topic. We reserve the right to remove any comment we deem to be profane, rude, insulting or hateful. Comments will be reviewed before being published.