I always wanted to act," Gavin Mahlie once told me. "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 added ruefully, "I haven't done anything legal since then."
That mischievous little joke was a perfect "Mahlie moment." It seems like a good place to start remembering him. For, shocking as it is, memories are all we have left. This man who brought to vivid life so many characters in so many plays died in his sleep -- mostly likely from a heart attack -- on April 4. He was 41 years old.
His death came just two weeks before he was to revive his role of Puck in The Shakespeare Festival at Tulane's single-performance presentation of A Midsummer Night's Dream on Saturday, followed by a tour of local schools. It's a role that seemed perfect for the impish Mahlie.
Mahlie grew up in Marrero, Gretna and Westwego -- "All over the West Bank," as he used to say. Before getting his law degree from Tulane, he majored in psychology at Loyola. Ultimately, however, the lure of the spotlight proved irresistible.
As an actor, Mahlie hit his stride with Shakespeare. In 1994, he played in Much Ado About Nothing, the first offering of the first season of The Shakespeare Festival at Tulane. He'd only done one Shakespearean role before that. Oddly enough, director Aime Michel had never done any Shakespeare at all. Michel, who still heads up the festival, says Mahlie became one of her most steadfast collaborators. In fact, he performed in almost every play they did.
The list is staggering: Iago in Othello, Shylock in The Merchant of Venice, Tybalt in Romeo and Juliet, Laertes in Hamlet, Brutus in Julius Caesar, Banquo in Macbeth and the monarch himself in both Richard II and Richard III. This incomplete list of characters gives a sense of Mahlie's range. Somehow he brought a naturalness to these diverse individuals.
"He lived for Shakespeare," says Michel. "For six or seven months, he'd be reading the play, talking about it, thinking about it. He just had this instinctual response to Shakespeare. Plus, there was his dedication. He came in word perfect, off book, at the first rehearsal!"
"Once you get a taste of Shakespeare, you're hooked," was how Mahlie once summed it up for me. "Those incredible characters expressing themselves in that magical language!"
I saw Mahlie in such a panoply of roles, it's difficult to pick out highlights. His Richard II was an epiphany. I had read the play. I had even seen it done in London. Still, I didn't get it. But Mahlie's performance was so alive that the play finally made sense. Fittingly, he won a Big Easy Entertainment Award for Best Actor for that role.
Mahlie's Shylock in Merchant of Venice used a cell phone and a laptop computer -- modern touches that were his own idea.
"As Shylock, he was saying some lines, after being abused in an anti-semitic tirade," Michel remembers, "when a Jewish lady in the audience started intoning a Hebrew prayer. Gavin just stopped and let her go on. It was totally haunting. Afterward, he told me he felt he had been given approval."
Mahlie's knack for making these complex characters understandable made him a favorite with audiences. Some Shakespeare Festival patrons (who had never met Mahlie) came to pay their respects at his wake. What a touching tribute to an actor -- to a Shakespearean actor, no less.
Not that Mahlie limited himself to Shakespeare. He was, if not quite ubiquitous, certainly a frequent player. Among his notable non-Shakespearean outings were his many roles in New Orleans playwright Jim Fitzmorris' political sagas, like The Visitation. He also played a beleaguered dad in Ricky Graham's long-running comedy When Ya Smilin'. In fact, Mahlie told me that he came to Shakespeare late and to original plays even later, but he couldn't think of anything better than dividing his time between the two.
His last role was the lead last August in Chekhov's Uncle Vanya, directed by longtime collaborator Buzz Podewell -- closing just days before Hurricane Katrina. Needless to say, Mahlie's absence will be heavily felt in the local theater scene. When he died, he was about to start rehearsals for two productions: Kimberly Akimbo, the first post-Katrina offering of Southern Rep, and A Midsummer Night's Dream, which will also tour in six parishes. Of course, the shows will go on with replacements. Billy Slaughter will perform as Puck in Saturday's production.
To convey an actor's qualities, people often cite movie stars with a similar range or approach. Jimmy Stewart is the name that pops up, over and over, as a touchstone for Mahlie. That's a tribute. But, in the end, what can one say? Lara Grice, who costarred often with Mahlie, perhaps put it most aptly it at his wake: "Good night, sweet Prince." There's no better leave-taking for this lover of Shakespeare than the Bard's own words of farewell.
- Gavin Mahlie, who died April 4, was set to reprise his role as Puck in The Shakespeare Festival at Tulane's presentation of A Midsummer Night's Dream.