Nick Steen and Robyn Cohen 

Dial "M" for Murder co-stars help launch Idaho Shakespeare Festival's 39th season

No one really "dials" anything anymore: The rotary phone has gone the way of television tubes and fax machines. The title of Dial "M" for Murder triggers black-and-white memories of Grace Kelly fighting off a killer in the masterpiece that was Alfred Hitchcock's 1954 cinematic adaptation of the successful 1952 Broadway play. Dial "M" is a crackling crime thriller that is still entertaining 60 years later, which makes it perfect for launching Idaho Shakespeare Festival's 2015 season--it previews Friday, May 29, and opens the following night--with Producing Artistic Director Charlie Fee at the helm as director.

Boise Weekly sat down with Dial "M" co-stars Robyn Cohen and Nick Steen (the femme fatale and the paramour, respectively) to talk about their journeys in life, and ultimately, to Idaho. Steen, in his second year with ISF, is a self-professed "gear head" who loves long-distance drives between Boise, Los Angeles and his hometown of Dallas. Cohen, who's in her first year with ISF, was still recovering from her own 15-hour drive from LA, where she had just come off the set of a movie. Their journeys are not dissimilar. Since childhood—his in Texas, hers in Maryland—they have both been dreamers.

"When I was a kid, all I needed was a stick and the flatbed of a truck, and I'd be entertained for hours," said Steen.

"I had received something so magical," said Cohen, recalling the moment when she saw a touring ballet company. "I remember thinking, 'Who are these people who gave me this incredible gift?' I wanted to do that."

Can I assume that you've seen the 1954 Hitchcock film?

Cohen: Several times; it's an incredible film. The hardest part for a 21st century actress is to really get into the mindset of those relationships. It's a very different kind of relatedness between men and women, very distinct.

Nick, we saw you last year in ISF's production of Deathtrap. Isn't there a connection there? Didn't [playwright] Ira Levin say that he had great affection for Dial M for Murder?

Steen: Absolutely. If you look at the two plays side-by-side, there are some wonderful similarities.

Was there any part of you that didn't want to return to the thriller genre so soon after appearing in Deathtrap?

Steen: Not at all. I was incredibly excited to do this. It's great fun to come back with this genre.

Cohen: He is wonderful in this play. I love acting with him.

Steen: Right back at you. And there's something very exciting about doing a thriller. I get to scare you, and you keep guessing.

Have you taken some time to examine why audiences love so much to be scared?

Cohen: It gets us out of our heads. It grabs your attention and pulls you, momentarily, from whatever madness you have going on.

Steen: We have a number of things in our day-to-day lives that protect us from being hurt or angry; there are things that you simply can't get away from: love and fear. But it takes great care to execute something like that in the theater and in our case, it's all about Charlie Fee. I adore having him as a director. My thought process and personality really jibes with the way he communicates.

How is he different from other directors?

Steen: Some directors walk in with assumptions that they know everything about the play and the story that they want to tell. I have no doubt that Charlie knows all these things, but he's not afraid to get down in the mud with you and dissect a play, walking through every miniscule step to piece together a great story.

Cohen: Charlie is the most dynamic director I've ever worked with. He's a winning combination of a brilliant, meticulous drill sergeant and a huge-hearted, hilarious companion. He's very gentle, and he's always on your side. And I've worked with a lot of directors.

I want to pause you there. You've worked with some of America's best directors. Can you talk about Wes Anderson? [Cohen appeared in Anderson's The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou and a commercial directed by Anderson].

Cohen: He's the only living filmmaker where you could see only one frame of a movie and instantly know that it's a Wes Anderson film. He knows more about what he wants than any other artist I've worked with. On set, sometimes he'll film 30 or 40 takes.

You've both been with this production at the Great Lakes Theater in Cleveland since February. Can you speak about the experience of taking this same play from a traditional theater to [the] outdoor amphitheater here in Boise?

Steen: When I got here with Deathtrap a year ago, I thought it was all about doing the same play in a different space. But what I learned was it was a reimagination of how to tell that story. I see it now as a gift. I felt so more connected with the production and my fellow performers in Idaho.

Talk to me about performing for Idaho audiences.

Steen: They're so willing to go with you. In theater, sometimes you'll get "sit back and show me" audiences. But Idaho audiences are so much more open-armed. You'll be hard pressed to find a more loving and appreciative audience than you'll find here.

Cohen: That's so great to hear. I can't wait.

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