Michael Shannon's character in Craig Wright's virtual one-man show Mistakes Were Made, now playing at the Barrow Street Theatre, is called Felix Artifex. The nomenclature is not random. "I know the name has a meaning," says Shannon. "'Felix' means 'happy.' 'Artifex' means 'art maker.'"
That deconstruction notwithstanding, it's uncertain when the man by that name is either happy, or will end up making art. Artifex is a small-time Off-Broadway producer. He spends the play's antic 90 minutes desperately hustling and juggling multiple phone lines in an effort to pull together the disparate forces needed to stage a play about the French Revolution, which is also called Mistakes Were Made. (Boy, were they ever.)
Shannon — a regular at the Barrow Street, having starred there in Tracy Letts' Bug and the recent, acclaimed revival of Our Town — is pretty sure Wright had a couple of life models in mind when creating Felix. But for the actor, it doesn't matter much whether his character is a producer or a brick-layer.
"I guess some producers who have seen it can identify with the struggle," he says. "I didn't see the story as being about a theatre production, but more metaphorically about people in general who try to make things happen. [They] tend to suffer. It's a general rule of the universe." He adds that he sees the play more as a "fable" than a literal story. Mistakes Were Made was first produced at a place Shannon helped make happen nearly 20 years ago — A Red Orchid Theatre in Chicago. He has appeared in about ten productions there since then, and has acted with other Windy City companies such as Steppenwolf. He went off to Hollywood, as so many do, and after parts in blockbusters like "Pearl Harbor" and "Vanilla Sky" landed an Oscar nod for Best Supporting Actor for his role in "Revolutionary Road."
In recent years, however, he's lived close to the Greenpoint, Brooklyn, shooting set of "Boardwalk Empire," the HBO series by Martin Scorsese set during Prohibition in Atlantic City. Shannon plays Nelson Van Alden, a zealous federal agent who goes after corrupt political boss Enoch "Nucky" Thompson. Thompson, played by Steve Buscemi, is based on real-life figure Enoch Johnson, who ruled the seaside town for many decades. It's all been a big learning experience for Shannon, who admits he's not much of a history buff. "I've not even been to Atlantic City."