Mary McDonald-Lewis knows how to talk.
More importantly, she knows how to teach others how to talk. If you’ve been to more than a few theater productions in Portland, chances are strong that you’ve heard her work, which falls into the category of valuable contributions that ideally you won’t quite notice. As a dialect coach (or “voice & language consultant,” or various other job descriptions) she’s contributed to innumerable shows and trained many more performers.
A skilled voice actor herself, of course, she’s also made an impact locally and nationally as a labor activist. As ArtsWatch tracked her down earlier this week, she was in the midst of packing for a quick trip to Los Angeles to help negotiate a new SAG-AFTRA (Screen Actors Guild – American Federation of Television and Radio Artists) contract covering voice work for animation.
Mary Mac, as she’s widely known, knows how to talk in the more casual sense as well. That is, she’s a delightful conversationalist — quick-witted, knowledgeable, curious, engaging. We met at an airy Italian joint in her longtime Northeast Portland neighborhood to talk Shakespeare — she’s directing a production of The Tempest at the Steep and Thorny Way to Heaven — but she first spoke enthusiastically about the show’s producers, Megan Skye Hale and Myrrh Larsen, and the creative performance space they’ve nurtured beneath the Hawthorne Bridge.
“They’re kind of one of the young power couples of Portland arts,” she says of Hale (who’ll play Ariel in this production) and Larsen. “They’re both classic and modern at the same time. They have a real fascination with classical work, especially Shakespeare…And they’re very modern in terms of inclusiveness, cross-gender and multi-gender casting, and their overall approach to the work. It’s not politics with them, it’s passion: It’s just the way that art should be made.”
When I mentioned that I’d not been to the Steep and Thorny Way, McDonald-Lewis fairly glowed about it. “You sort of expect Sherlock to emerge from the steam,” she said of its gritty neighborhood near the river. “It’s this dark heart that just runs on love. They are scrappy and they dream big. Some real magic comes off that tiny stage.”
For The Tempest, Mary Mac is attempting to weave that magic throughout the space, in a sort of immersive/environmental approach to staging. “It’s a great practical solution to a small space, but it also makes you a part of the world of this space and this play, and you return to the real world when you leave….It’s been good for me to challenge myself, working with minimal resources and maximal ambition.”
Part of that ambition is a fairly dark vision of Shakespeare’s great and thorny Romance.
“Shakespeare’s texts are so plastic, but you shouldn’t do any interpretation that you can’t support,” she says. “I’d never set The Tempest in a roller rink.
“Well.” Then the pause. “Life is long. You never know.” Then the wink.
Greasing the wheels, so to speak, of her version is a view of Prospero, Shakespeare’s magician-king protagonist, as an imperial force on the remote isle where the story unfolds.
“In my view, he’s something of an asshole,” Mary Mac opines, between bites of a luscious late-summer caprese. “He’s gaming the system. He keeps reneging on his promise of freedom to Ariel, and he has Caliban as a permanent slave…To me, this is not an after-school special, it’s a Grimm’s fairy tale.”
Surely Prospero is a manipulator, a subverter of natural order on and around the island. But if he is such a dark, negative force, how is the play’s prominent theme of reconciliation, of justice, of harmony orchestrated by Prospero, made clear?
“Life is a composition of both light and dark impulses,” she offers. “Prospero is confronted with a choice. And he makes a choice for humanity, for forgiveness and for redemption. But that only comes through him being forced, by Ariel, to be self-aware.
“I’m a Libra: I need harmony! And Shakespeare gives us plenty of opportunities for it.”
Though she’ll have the redoubtable theater veteran Chris Porter playing Prospero, she says that some of the show’s actors have minimal experience performing Shakespeare. Rather than viewing this as a hurdle, she sees it as a chance to teach Shakespeare her way, which emphasizes the inherent musicality of the writing.
“If you can master the melody of any Shakespearean line, you can make it clear, you can make it intelligible, you can make it emotionally powerful….It’s made me want to direct more Shakespeare, I’ll tell you that!”
But first, she has an upcoming acting part in the next production at Artists Rep, Bess Wohl’s Small Mouth Sounds, as a yoga guru whose instructions float in from offstage.
“My entire role will take place in a whisper booth while I watch the actors on a monitor,” she says excitedly. “It’s. A. Voice. Actor’s. Dream!”
Yet another Mary Mac impact on Portland culture comes through Readers Theatre Repertory, which she co-founded in 2001. “It’s been such a blessing to spin stories out of thin air there,” she says of Blackfish Gallery, where RTR holds forth, “to turn those walls into (a place for) campfire storytelling.” The company — which specializes in “small stories with big ideas at their heart” — kicks off its 2018 season this weekend with a two-fer, both 1940s radio plays by Lucille Fletcher, Sorry, Wrong Number and The Hitchhiker, directed by Patrick Tangredi.
Nominated for a best-musical Tony Award during its 2016 Broadway run, Waitress, the flavorful, Tony-nominated musical by pop songwriter Sara Bareilles and librettist Jessie Nelson follows the rise of an unhappy wife and diner worker who wants her own piece of the pie. The national touring production visits as part of the Broadway in Portland series. Watch for an in-depth ArtsWatch take coming soon from the Seattle-based doyenne of Northwest arts journalists, Misha Berson.
Fabrizio & Cabriolet in: Water, Dirt, Breeze, Fire, playing this weekend at the Headwaters, features a pair of ego-driven clowns in a show about the elements. Which seems fitting and, in a way, universal: Nature makes fools of us all.
PAC ‘em in
With so much professional theater happening around town, I have to admit that I’ve too often overlooked what’s going on at Portland Actors Conservatory. Yet over the years the school’s alumni have included the likes of Andrea Alton, who’s appeared on “Saturday Night Live” and Comedy Central, and Brooke Blanchard, who had a recurring role in TV’s “The West Wing,” as well as many Portland favorites, such as Rebecca Ridenour, Tom Mounsey, Spencer Conway, and Third Rail Rep artistic director Maureen Porter. And the school’s shows I have seen never have struck me as lesser work for featuring mostly students.
PAC’s recently-announced shows for this season sound particularly promising. Up first is Othello: the Remix, opening Nov. 2. Despite my general loathing of hip-hop, I’m intrigued by this beat-savvy adaptation, which originally was commissioned by the Globe as part of the 2012 World Shakespeare Festival. It’s the third Elizabethan-to-hip-hop translation from a team called the Q Brothers (one predecessor being the brilliantly titled The Bomb-itty of Errors), and it’ll be directed here by the dynamic Vin Shambry.
In March, PAC founder/fearless leader Beth Harper teams with actor and PAC faculty member Chris Harder to co-direct The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time.
Best line I read this week
From John Hodgman’s advice column in The New York Times Magazine:
“Angel writes: My college roommate, Reid, studies chess strategy. I want to play against him, not someone else’s intellectual property. He does this a lot.
(Hodgman responds): Your college must be terrible, because you are confusing ‘intellectual property’ with ‘learning.’”
That’s all I have for now. I’ll try to do better the next time.