Actor/playwright John Middleton was researching a play when he came across a bit of Minnesota history that he found surprising and thrilling.
In June 1933, William Hamm Jr., president of the brewery his grandfather had bought 68 years earlier, was kidnapped near his office on St. Paul’s East Side. The culprits were professional criminals — members of a gang led by Fred Barker and Creepy Karpis, who would later teach Charles Manson to play the guitar. The kidnappers demanded and received a $100,000 ransom. Hamm was later released unharmed.
The case is notable because it was the first time that the FBI used new technology to lift fingerprints from the ransom note, busting the criminals.
This discovery sent Middleton into a creative frenzy. He dug deeper. “Prints,” Middleton’s play that uses elements of the Hamm case as inspiration, premieres Friday at the Theatre Garage. The title refers both to the fingerprints and the breathless press coverage of historical events at a time when Minnesota seemed like part of the Wild West.
“We have this wholesome image as a place where a mayor skis and crowd-surfs,” he said of the state’s biggest city. “But we have other history, too. The ’30s were a wild time.”
The play stars Middleton and Mo Perry as reporters who cover the kidnapping. The cast also includes Zach Curtis, Ari Hoptman, Summer Hagen and Karen Wiese-Thompson. It is told in the style of such classic movies as “The Front Page” and “His Girl Friday.”
“I love films from that era, I love gangster stuff,” Middleton said. “That, combined with the fact that this story shows a side of Minnesota that we don’t talk about much today, made it something that I wanted to explore.”
He is clear that “Prints” is comic entertainment, inspired by facts but not adhering too closely to them.
“If you’re going to take a history quiz after seeing this play, you’ll do poorly,” he said. “The tagline we’re using is that this play is corrupted from true events.”
Middleton moved to the Twin Cities from Appleton, Wis., in 1990 to pursue theater. He spent most of the 1990s playing character roles as a member of the Children’s Theatre’s acting ensemble. In 1998, he burned out on theater, quitting the business to work in radio. But while he wanted to leave the field, the stage would not leave him. He returned as a writer, joining the Playwrights’ Center. He wrote and performed “The Captain and the Dog-Faced Boy” in the Minnesota Fringe Festival. Two years later, Middleton’s “Oil on Canvas” was used in 2005 as the basis of a show by 15 Head, the late experimental company.
“Prints” is his most ambitious work to date.
“I think people will be surprised at how funny, how inventive it is,” said Stacia Rice, co-founder of Torch Theater.
In the timeline of theater, “Prints” is almost an instant play. Last May Middleton gathered some actors and had a reading of the new work in the conference room of the James J. Hill House in St. Paul.
Actor and director Craig Johnson, who manages the historic home for his day job, did the stage directions at that reading. Rice also read a part.
“At the end of that, we had a meeting,” said Johnson. “Torch was absolutely interested in doing it.”
How did he know it so quickly?
“As a character actor, John is sly and very witty,” said Johnson, who first directed Middleton half a dozen years ago in “Our Town” for another small company, Girl Friday Productions. “He brings his smarts to playwriting. He knows what works onstage, what is playable. The scene structure has strong, clear acting objectives. There are a lot of characters in the show but he boiled it down to eight actors, almost all of whom play two or three roles.”
Middleton has structured the dialogue in such a way that actors have time to change costumes for different characters. “I’ve seen scripts where characters that are supposed to be played by the same actor talk to each other,” said Johnson, laughing.
For Middleton, “Prints” connects him to history and to a field that will not let him go.
“I love the theater and love what we can do with it,” he said. “I get to learn new things, to deepen my knowledge and to play.”
And we get to watch.