Theater: New Zealander Stephen Cartmell steps into the chaos that is 'Irma Vep.'

  • Article by: GRAYDON ROYCE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 28, 2014 - 3:46 PM

Actor Stephen Cartmell, the face of a baked bean brand in his native New Zealand, is the new guy in the Jungle’s “Mystery of Irma Vep.”

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Stephen Cartmell takes on multiple characters in the Jungle Theatre’s production of “The Mystery of Irma Vep.”

Photo: Photos by BRE McGEE • Special to the Star Tribune,

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Stephen Cartmell knows he has to fill big shoes — not to mention coats and dresses, hats, wigs and tunics. Cartmell steps into the role that Steven Epp played in the 2010 Jungle Theater production of “The Mystery of Irma Vep.” Bradley Greenwald is back to perform the other zillion roles in director Joel Sass’ staging, which opens Friday.

Cartmell has known everyone involved for years, but he still felt like the new kid in class on the first day of rehearsal.

“I was worried it was going to be like that, but really I’m not going to go in and imitate him,” Cartmell said of Epp. “There’s a new energy in the room.”

He is that energy — an actor in his mid-40s, working hard to support his family, bringing 20 years of acting experience to a play that depends on gaudy performance and some amazing stage tricks. He is a serious actor who can be very funny on stage and who recognizes the importance of chemistry and timing.

“One second can seem like an eternity,” Cartmell said of the entrances required during fast-change segments. So it was important that he and his longtime mates formed a unit.

Cartmell went out of his way to mention another key player in “Irma Vep” — stage manager John Novak, who dresses the set with an unerring eye toward authenticity.

“He’s an unsung hero,” Cartmell said. “Everything is so real. If you need a magazine, he gets a magazine from that time period.”

The Bean Man

Cartmell has a long history in the Twin Cities, but he also has returned periodically to his native New Zealand for work. He was optimistic about “Mercy Peak,” a TV series that drew him home in 2000. The show was canceled within months, but Cartmell hooked into a commercial for Wattie’s Baked Beans. He was Bean Man in a campaign that had his face on buses, billboards and TV ads that featured him as a feckless superhero. You can still find a few shots on YouTube. The gig made him a celebrity for a brief and lucrative moment, which ironically made his face so well known he couldn’t get stage work in New Zealand. Besides, he said, Auckland does not boast a thriving theater economy.

Cartmell was raised largely by his grandmother in New Zealand. His family was “a patchwork quilt” of parents and siblings and Cartmell has made his peace with it.

“Helps me ‘frame high notions of my birth,’ ” he said, quoting a line from “Irma Vep.”

He did his overseas experience after high school by backpacking across Australia. He met a woman from Minnesota and at 20 headed for the United States. Trained as a radio journalist, he had “an afternoon show in Lubbock, Texas, and a morning show in Colorado.” His eyes, cast outside, suggest his radio career was not the happiest of times.

“It’s very lonely.”

Back in Minnesota

Cartmell had his first Twin Cities acting job with Troupe America (for a tour show) and then he fell in with the Brave New Workshop in 1994. The following year he joined Theatre de la Jeune Lune. After returning from his Bean Man phase, Cartmell worked at the Jungle in “Two for the Seesaw,” where he met his current wife, Maggie Chestovich, and in “Shipwrecked” with director Sass.

The two — friends since the mid-1990s — also worked on “The Birthday Party” in 2012.

He is a homey guy, who loves working with Ten Thousand Things not only for the troupe’s aesthetic but for the schedule. Many shows are performed during the day. Except for the public run, he had his nights and weekends free, which helps his family life with Chestovich and their 3-year-old girl, Charlie.

Somehow, the topic got to smoking (“Can’t smoke around the baby”) and Cartmell told how the stage can mess with an actor. After quitting the habit, he had to smoke in “The Birthday Party,” and it hooked him.

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  • … and as Jane Twisden, right, with Bradley Greenwald as Lady Enid Hillcrest.

  • THE MYSTERY OF IRMA VEP

    What: By Charles Ludlam. Directed and designed by Joel Sass.

    When: 8 p.m. Fri.-Sat., 7:30 p.m. Tue.-Thu. Ends Oct. 19.

    Where: Jungle Theater, 2951 Lyndale Av. S., Mpls.

    Tickets: $25-$43, 612-822-7063 or jungletheater.com.

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