Peter Quince (whose day job is carpentry) is one of the most ill-starred theatrical producers of all times. He is charged with staging "the most lamentable comedy, and most cruel death of Pyramus and Thisby" as part of the wedding celebrations for Theseus, Duke of Athens, and Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons. For this daunting task, he must rely on that legendary, rag-tag troupe of incompetents, known to the ages as "the rude mechanicals."
For Karl Lengel, who plays Quince in A Midsummer Night's Dream at The Shakespeare Festival at Tulane -- which celebrates its 10th anniversary this weekend -- the role may not require a great deal of imagination. For much of his theatrical career, Lengel was stage manager for national bus and truck tours of major Broadway shows, like Annie and Miss Saigon. More recently, he served as managing director of Dog and Pony Theater. The fictional impresario's plea to his company, "I pray you, fail me not," will no doubt spring naturally to his lips.
Lengel, who received a Big Easy Entertainment Awards Best Actor nomination this year for his portrayal of Oscar Wilde in Gross Indecency, would appear on most people's list of New Orleans' 10 best actors. Perhaps "art imitating life" (as in the Peter Quince role) is part of the secret of his success.
Just this spring, for instance, he scored a hit in Mr. and Mrs. Hollywood, the story of married movie stars, both of whom are up for Oscars. The woman wins, the man loses. Lengel himself is married to an actress, the formidably charming Ann Casey. And, while Lengel had to settle for a Big Easy nomination, Casey actually won a Big Easy Best Supporting Actress last year. No wonder Lengel could saunter into an open audition, pick up a script, and -- as writer/director Barret O'Brien remembers -- "blow us all away."
Of course, these parallels must be taken with a grain of salt. The first time I noticed Lengel, he was the bastard son, Edmund, in King Lear. What struck me was the relaxed confidence of this villain. He was perfectly reasonable -- just devoid of any moral inhibitions or sympathy. It was the sort of performance that bespeaks years of experience. In fact, it was the first time Lengel had acted in 17 years. And he hadn't done much before, either.
"I hadn't played that many roles, but I had been backstage, paying careful attention," Lengel explains. "I think I learned a lot by watching."
The watching goes back to his early childhood. Born in 1952, Lengel was the oldest of five children (Karl, Karen, Kember, Kurt and Kris). In Corpus Christi, Texas, where he grew up, his parents took part in community theater. In the sixth grade, young Karl joined his mother, father and sister in the cast of The King and I. When the family moved to Charlottesville, W. Va., Lengel continued performing in amateur productions and -- thanks to a voice, grown suddenly mellifluous in adolescence -- he began getting jobs as a radio announcer.
By 1977, he had flunked out of college, gotten married, gotten divorced and was drifting through the various jobs in AM radio. As luck would have it, the same director who'd done The King and I those many years ago was now putting together a risque musical called Let My People Come in Washington, D.C. Not only did Lengel land a part, he met his future wife.
"This was a show where we took our clothes off," he recalls. "They needed a real singer, a belter. So they hired Ann. She was down in New Orleans, but they knew her from before. Ann didn't have to do nude, because she was talented. I had to do nude!"
Apparently Casey liked what she saw. When the show closed, Lengel moved to New Orleans to be with her, and "fell in with Ann's crowd" -- which included actor-director John Grimsley, who was to become a lifelong friend and collaborator.
"We decided to try New York," Lengel says. "Ann went ahead by train to look for an apartment. Just as I'm about to leave in the U-Haul, John decides he wants to come along. But he's broke. So, he sells his saxophone to a guy from Vince Vance & the Valiants at a parking lot, jumps back into the van and we head out for points north."
Four years ago, after myriad adventures (including helping to open EuroDisney), Lengel moved back to New Orleans, where he is now a full-time announcer and more recently a producer at WWNO 89.9 FM radio.
"I love language," says Lengel. "When directors ask me about my process, I say my process is the text. Maybe that comes from radio. And, of course, Shakespeare is the high point of language. It's just so great to have those words to speak."
- Writer-director Barret O'Brien was amazed at how actor Karl Lengel (pictured) could walk into the audition for Mr. and Mrs. Hollywood and "blow us all away."