Playing Detective

Tatum Fjerstad

Backstage at the Old Arizona, six University students warmed up. They gave each other backrubs, practiced their British accents and wandered in their underwear.

Playwright Nick Ryan, 21, quietly approached each of them, wished them well and left the theater.

This is the third time the senior theater student has seen the play he began writing in high school, “Inspector Rex,” staged in the Twin Cities.

But this time, the audience, the risk and the recognition are upped.

Originally staged at the University’s Xperimental Theatre in 2003, the play graced this year’s Fringe Festival and then moved to the Old Arizona in Minneapolis for a three-weekend run.

And with changing venues come new challenges.

“At the X, you have a safety net. The shows are free so there is no financial risk at stake, and there are lots of followers of the X that come to every show,” Ryan said. “With the Fringe and Old Arizona, we’ve had to worry about marketing. And happily it’s had very good success.”

The show was dubbed a “Fringe Festival hit” by bloggers and message board members on the festival’s Web site. It got good press; it filled seats.

Though the venue has changed, much has not. Ryan’s British Parlor mystery, based on Sophocles’ “Oedipus Rex,” is still a farcical look at a classic work, and it still features Oedipus as a drunken inspector with a goofy gang of supporting characters.

Ryan dreamed up these personalities in high school. He had read the story of Oedipus Rex, a man who denies a prophet’s prediction that he will kill his father and marry his mother, but ends up doing it unknowingly. In disgust, he then gouges his eyes out.

At the beginning of the copy Ryan read, Oedipus was compared to a detective. This idea hit Ryan. He ran with it.

He began writing off and on in high school and finished the play in his first year at the University. His influences were Douglas Adams (“Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy”) and the dry British humor in the Monty Python films.

Ryan directed the play’s first run at the Xperimental Theatre. But in the past two productions, Ryan asked Jason Ballweber, 26, a University theater student, if he would like to take that role.

Ballweber said he didn’t need to be persuaded.

“I’d seen a lot of his type of theater – and it’s my type of theater – so I was pretty sure I was going to do it,” Ballweber said. “Nick wanted to see what someone else would do with his script and if his writing could stand on its own.”

Ballweber didn’t see “Inspector Rex” at the Xperimental Theatre. And he’s glad.

“I enjoy directing something I’ve never seen,” Ballweber said. “If I see it, it tends to influence my directing, and I end up second-guessing myself.”

He said he likes that his fresh take on the play has lasted and keeps more than just audiences chuckling.

“There are a few times where it looks like the actors are about to smile,” Ballweber said.

Cast member Lee Richards, 20, has been a part of all three productions of “Inspector Rex.” At the Xperimental, the individualized studies student starred as Rex. Now he plays Henry, the delightfully sarcastic butler.

Richards had never before seen a show from two different directors’ perspectives, he said.

“Nick (Ryan), being the playwright, had a clear picture in his head with more specific ideas,” Richards said. “His production was more outlandish. Jason (Ballweber) wanted to plug realism by implying that these absurd characters could exist in the real world.”

Richards watched not only the play’s characters and producers evolve – he watched the audiences.

“Doing the show at the Fringe gave us the opportunity to go out and do it more publicly for varying backgrounds,” Richards said.

Those backgrounds gave different reactions to different parts of the show, he said.

“We were stopping for 30 seconds while people laughed at things we didn’t quite understand,” Richards said.

As “Inspector Rex” closes this weekend, producers and cast members aren’t certain where, if anywhere, the show will go.

This fall, Ryan will direct “Betrayal,” the first show of the season at the Xperimental Theatre.

But Ryan looks forward to future performances of “Inspector Rex.” He heard that a high school in Libertyville, Ill., purchased the script online. After their production closed, they sent him the $25 fee and an apologetic letter. It said the group would have sent the money sooner but didn’t have enough until the run was finished.

“That was a disappointment. I wish they would have told me about the production before it closed,” Ryan said. “I would have liked to see a group of high school students put on the show. I’m sure it was a much different angle.”