March’s “Actor Stealing the Spotlight” (ASS)

Why, hello, there.  Welcome to a new feature at TBO.  Each month, we’re going to highlight an Actor who is currently Stealing the Spotlight (or, the ASS).  This is someone from our community who particularly stood out for their performance or body of work the previous month (obviously from the shows that we actually reviewed).  We thought it would be fun to shine some light on those who continue to make the Baltimore theater scene just fucking great.




I first noticed Mike Zemarel in last year’s All in the Timing at Fells Point Corner Theatre (I didn’t review that show, but I saw it and it won a BULSHIT award).  I quite enjoyed his controlled, sardonic delivery and beautifully floppy hair.  I was pleased as punch to see him turn up in 4 by Chekov, also at FPCT, in March.   Here’s what I said about him in the review:

“The first of the evening’s four plays, The Dangers of Tobacco, is really just a long monologue staring poor old Nyukhin (Mike Zemarel). He’s a long-suffering bozo hen-pecked into performing a lecture on the dangers of his only vice. Zemarel nails this. His mannerisms are so real they hurt, from shoving his Wes Anderson-esque glasses up his nose to his distinctive laughsnort, he’s so good. This little lion in a mouse’s body had a wonderful slow rage build that tickled me to death. Seriously, I was stuffing a piece of chocolate into my mouth and laughed so hard I like, aspirated it, which caused my partner to look at me with what I would like to think was adoring love (but probably was not).”

Mike somehow agreed to talk to me so I interviewed him.

Hey, Mike.  What’s up, how are you?

I’m okay – it’s been a crazy busy day at my 9-5.

Where do you work?


Oh, that’s awesome!  VERY COOL.  So, what are your feelings on being ASS of the month for March? 

It’s an honor, really.  There’s so much great work going on at so many different theaters that to be singled out is a nice thing.  A lot of people don’t get the recognition they deserve.

You seem a little shy about it.  Are you shy?

Depends on who I’m with or how much I’ve been drinking.

Okay, how’d you wind up being cast in 4 by Chekov? Do you normally dig old school shit like that?

Well, I’ve reached the point that I’m gravitating to only doing things that I like.  I have a Bachelors degree in Theater-

Yeah, me too.  SO useful, right?

Yeah, right.  Totally.  So, obviously, I’ve read Chekov and I have a strong interest in that work.  Howard Berkowitz [who directed 4 by Chekov] was directing The Misathrope at Vagabond and I saw it.  It was a GREAT production.  I happened to go on one of their last nights to hang with them afterwards and I ended up talking to Howard.  I picked his brain and found out he’d be directing Chekov next and essentially didn’t let him up off the mat until he agreed to let me audition.  Anyone who has done theater in Baltimore over the years knows that networking is key so I basically hunted him down.  And then he was nice enough to cast me.  It’s funny, I actually thought I had been cast as the other two parts in the show, so I got to the table read and I was like “Huh, I guess not.”

One of the reasons I can get down with Chekov is that I feel like, though he sends his women characters up to be rather needly and clingy and shrill, the men don’t get off any better – they’re big old sad sacks on the Loserville bus. Thoughts?

All of his characters are these horribly pathetic fully fleshed out humans that seem just like the rest of us.  I think the reason I gravitated towards it is because it is so funny and so tragic.

Agreed.  Also, Anton is hilariously grouchy about the idea of marriage, especially in these four shorts. I like this quote from him in a letter to his intended: “By all means I will be married if you wish it. But on these conditions: everything must be as it has been hitherto—that is, she must live in Moscow while I live in the country, and I will come and see her … give me a wife who, like the moon, won’t appear in my sky every day.” Do you agree?

Yeah, the interesting thing about Chekov is that he’s a grouch that is so in touch with the human condition, so horribly sympathetic to people.  It’s like he’s just sighing going “Men are so pathetic, they can’t stand women and wouldn’t know what to do without them.”

Is that how you feel?

Well, in any relationship you try to make sacrifices.  I mean, ideally the other person would be allowed to see you everyday, but part of being with someone else is finding the best in one another and working to make it work.

Possibly related:  are you married?

No, I’m single.  Clearly.

Look out ladies!

[Uncomfortable laughter.]

Moving on.  You had two very different and distinct parts in the show. Which did you like better, Nyukhin the wimp or Smirnov the asshole?

I think I liked Nyukhin better in The Dangers of Tobacco.  I loved that experience, it was so interesting and took me so long to figure out who he was.  Howard and I would meet at six, before everyone else showed up, and he let me stomp around and work through this giant disjointed monologue that I didn’t get for a long time.  But he was a very patient and wonderful and always knew what I was going for and encouraged me forward.  And of course it’s great and  terrifying to be the only one onstage, by yourself.  Great when it’s successful, of course it wasn’t always –


Sure, there were nights it didn’t work, especially the first couple times we had an audience.  It didn’t BOMB but it definitely got better and I learned to love the failures, too.

What was your process like when it came time to differentiate the two? Physically, vocally?

Well, I decided that Nyukhin was a professor so I went with what I thought an old stodgy professor would be like.  I actually brought in a worry stone and wore an old blazer and played with the stone in my pocket.  At some point  that changed to a piece of chalk.  It really started working, though, when I got the mustache and the glasses.  Also, on the second weekend I had a really bad head cold that forced me to make some new choices and use my voice in a different way.  That’s when Nyukhin really showed up.  Smirnov came from physically walking and pacing around like a dangerous creature.  I literally tried to think about going to the Baltimore Zoo and watching the bears pace around.  So that’s where I started with him.

What’s the best play you’ve seen this year and why?

Unfortunately like a lot of people who work, I see about a quarter of the stuff that I should and would like to.  I did think that the recent production of Top Girls at FPCT was really good.  I enjoyed that show very much.

Wanna talk some shit about anyone in the cast or crew and have it attached to your name forever on the internet?

What’s the word?  Smalltimore?  No.  I’ve mellowed in recent years and I try not to talk shit.  I like working too much.

School the Baltimore theater scene a little. Wanna give it any tips? Shout outs?

We are responsible for making our own success.  We are the theater community.  All of us should work on projects that we are passionate about.  All of us should strive to push each other and be better.  We need to GO AND SEE what others are doing.  There needs to be less talking, more doing.  Something amazing is happening here.  People are taking charge.

What’s coming up next for you?

I’m in a show over at Single Carrot called The Apocalypse Comes at 6P by a Bulgarian gentlemen whose name I have a hard time pronouncing even when I try phonetically [Georgi Gospondinov].  It starts with previews on June 11th and runs through June 29th.

Wanna bitch about anything? I love to bitch.

 No.  No, actually I’m pretty content.  There’s a lot of good stuff going on.  I’m just glad the community is embracing it.


Got someone you’d like to nominate for next month’s ASS? E-mail me at

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