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Willy Come Lately 

Gavin Mahlie might be a late-blooming Shakespearean actor, but he's making up for lost time at The Shakespeare Festival at Tulane.

When I was in college, I read Shakespeare's Richard II in a course on Elizabethan drama. While I loved Shakespeare, this was one of the plays I didn't get excited about -- despite (or, perhaps, because of) a professor who considered himself a bit of an actor and spent much of the class time giving us the benefit of his talent in the form of recitations of the text.

Years later, I found myself in London and attended a production of the play by one of the national companies. There was much pageantry and splendid elocution -- but I sat there bored to distraction, trying and failing to let myself be carried away on the wings of poesy.

Given these two previous experiences, you can imagine the gloomy foreboding in my heart as the lights dimmed last summer at The Shakespeare Festival at Tulane, signaling three or so hours of a local production of this most static of the Bard's histories.

Instead, I had an awakening. Suddenly, for the first time, Richard became real and knowable -- from the very first moment, when he entered onto a balcony surrounded by a circle of courtiers and his queen. Watching this flawed, supercilious, somewhat spoiled individual (who was nonetheless a sophisticated and charming companion) get slowly backed into a corner like a trapped animal was surprisingly moving. The poetry of the text was grounded in a vivid and recognizable character. The three or so hours flew by. A total delight.

Gavin Mahlie, who recently won a Big Easy Best Actor award for this performance, is a member in good standing of that gloriously stubborn fellowship: the actors who have decided to stay and make it here in New Orleans.

In fact, Mahlie has never suffered from wanderlust. Raised "all over the West Bank," as he puts it (meaning Marrero, Gretna and Westwego), he went to Loyola, where he majored in psychology. "I always wanted to act," he says, "and I performed in school plays, but I was trying to be realistic, so I went to law school, got my degree and actually practiced for four years with Jones Walker. "But," he adds, ruefully, "I haven't done anything legal since then."

Be that as it may, Mahlie has avoided the proverbial day job for the past eight months -- a neat trick in a town so theatrically threadbare that Actor's Equity has invented a special lowball contract called the NOLA.

Part of the credit for Mahlie's current professional status goes to Ricky Graham, who cast Mahlie as the beleaguered father in his most recent long-running comedy hit When Ya Smilin'. And the rest of the credit goes to The Shakespeare Festival at Tulane, where he joined the company as a neophyte Shakespearean in the premiere season of 1994. That year, it seems, there were astral influences at work, linking Stratford-on-Avon with New Orleans. For John Grimsley also launched his Shakespeare in the Park series that year.

"I had never done any Shakespeare," Mahlie recounts. "Then someone dropped out of John's first production, Julius Caesar, and he called me. Later that year, (Artistic Director) Aimée Michel cast me in Much Ado About Nothing, her first production at Tulane.

"Once you get a taste of Shakespeare, you're hooked," Mahlie explains of his love of the Bard. "Those incredible characters, expressing themselves in that magical language. There's just so much there, you never stop learning."

Perhaps not, but apparently Mahlie had a knack from the get-go. "I was impressed with him from the very beginning," recalls Michel, who also perhaps sympathized for another reason: she had just been appointed a director at the Festival and she had never done any Shakespeare, either.

"He's a natural talent, but also incredibly diligent; the kind who will wake up at night and re-read the whole play," adds Michel, echoing a general consensus among his peers that Mahlie is a hard worker who doesn't have a drop of diva in his veins. "And, of course, now he has nearly 10 years of experience to draw from and the confidence that gives. That's especially helpful in doing Shakespeare, which is like the Olympics of acting."

Olympics in more ways than one. Not only is Shakespeare a verbal marathon, it also can make some heavy physical demands. Like the time in The Tempest, when Mahlie as Trinculo was clowning with Danny Bowen, as Caliban, and Mark McLaughlin as Stephano. "Mark was supposed to fake-punch me," Mahlie recalls, "but he caught me with his hand." ("Mark cold-cocked him!" says actress Claire Montcrief, who was watching the scene.) Mahlie went down for the count, blood streaming from his eye. But supported by his co-actors, he stumbled to his feet and continued playing the scene, with the world spinning around and a huge shiner rapidly taking shape.

Undaunted by such mishaps, Mahlie will be on the boards this season as Berowne in Love's Labour's Lost and as Lucio in Measure for Measure. "I came to Shakespeare late, and to original plays even later," says Mahlie. "But now, I can't think of anything better than dividing my time between the two."

click to enlarge Gavin Mahlie as Brutus in the 1998 production of Julius Caesar: 'Once you get a taste of Shakespeare, you're hooked.
  • Gavin Mahlie as Brutus in the 1998 production of Julius Caesar: 'Once you get a taste of Shakespeare, you're hooked.
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