- Portland Shakespeare Project’s Michael Mendelson talks about big casts, big dreams, and the allure of the classics
By Bob Hicks
Michael Mendelson is sitting at his regular table at Kornblatt’s Delicatessen in Northwest Portland, where he is greeted warmly by name and the waitress checks back on him more often than the line cooks slap classic corned beef and pastrami sandwiches on the busy kitchen’s window. Your regular, Michael? He smiles and nods. Soon his crisp bagel and mound of lox are at hand.
After all these years in Portland as one of the city’s best and busiest actors, Mendelson is still an industrial Midwest big city boy in certain inalienable ways, including his appetite for honest-to-god deli food, which you can’t much get around here except at oases like Kornblatt’s and Kenny & Zuke’s. He also stands out in spite of himself for a certain reserved elegance that is common in the neighborhoods of older cities but almost an oddity in loosey goosey Portland. At times Mendelson carries the hint of an Old World gentleman, a man of quietly impeccable business affairs. Here he is, an actor, on his way to the rehearsal hall (he’s playing Gayev in Artists Rep’s current production of The Cherry Orchard), sitting in a deli wearing a tie and dress shirt, perfect-length cuffs buttoned and jacket slung carefully over the adjacent chair. Let other people keep Portland weird. Mendelson will keep it rooted, thank you very much.
Of late Mendelson has been devoting much of his time to a massive new project: the launching of the Portland Shakespeare Project, a summer company that will make its debut July 13-August 7 with the comedy As You Like It, featuring Darius Pierce as Touchstone, Cristi Miles as Rosalind, Melissa Whitney as Celia, and original music by the noted singer/songwriter Mary Kadderly. You might not have heard of PSP (Mendelson is founder and artistic director) but the city’s actors have. More than 175 sent head shots and resumes. Mendelson and staff saw more than 100 in initial audition, called back 42, and finally cast 16 for 21 roles.
One of those 16 is Jill Westerby, who will play the pivotal role of the morose cynic Jacques — a gender-bending casting decision that Mendelson insists is neither political statement nor stunt: “I don’t do that because, ‘Oh, wouldn’t that be cool.’ I do it because that’s who came into the auditions. We’re committed to casting the strongest people who audition, and Portland has an astounding pool of women actors. It’s about the talent that walks in. If the best actor for a role is a woman, and it makes sense, I have to honor that.”
In a way that’s a neat turnabout from the Elizabethan days of the Globe and Shakespeare’s original productions, when women were banned from the stage and all the women’s roles were played by boys and young men. It’s part of what made, and still makes, Shakespeare’s many mistaken identities, including the women pretending to be men and so confusing the men who find themselves so oddly attracted to them, such funny and effective theater.
It’s also the pragmatism of a seasoned theater pro, and it suggests the essential practicality of this enterprise, which is at least partly about learning and expanding the craft of acting. An essential part of the Project’s program will be its lectures, workshops and classes, a part of the program led by actress Sarah Lucht, who is also a longtime faculty member at the professional training school Portland Actors Conservatory.
The entrepeneurial bug first nipped at Mendelson almost four seasons ago when Grant Turner of Northwest Classical Theatre Company asked him to play Shylock in The Merchant of Venice. “That reignited my passion for classic work,” Mendelson says. Later he directed Shakespeare’s Love’s Labour’s Lost for Northwest Classical Theatre, and it was a hit: “It was the combination of those two shows that solidified my feelings of what needed to be happening in town.”
Mendelson says he began to realize two things. First, classical theater in Portland wasn’t being done at a consistently high level. Second, it wasn’t being done very often. “Being involved in these large-cast shows, I realized — that’s going away. Because theaters can’t afford it,” he said. “And what I realized is, actors don’t know how to doÂ large-cast shows any more. It’s a lost skill. There’s a skill set that people don’t have. Seven actors is a big cast these days.”
Yet there’s a hunger for classic theater, fed partly by the proximity of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival 275 miles to the south. Hard to say how much audiences miss the classics, but theater people do: for all its ups and downs, actors still lament the loss of the old Tygres Heart Shakespeare Company. The odd classic pops up at Portland Center Stage and Artists Rep. Northwest Classical Theatre carries the torch in its tiny east side space. Summer Shakespeare-in-the-parks by the likes of Portland Actors Ensemble and Original Practice Shakespeare fills part of the gap. Another summer program, Quintessence Language and Imagination Theatre, is on hiatus while its home space at the University of Portland is being renovated.
Mendelson wants more — and better. “I believe there is nothing better than a classic play done well,” he says. “It moves us in a way contemporary work does not.” It’s also considerably more challenging, for audiences and performers alike: “We’re not dealing with Joe the next door neighbor. We’re dealing with kings and queens. War. Ambition. A play is like an onion. You think it’s one thing and as you go deeper, it changes. I don’t care how crafted as an actor or director you are, it’s always bigger than you think it’s going to be.”
And that takes him back to the concept of training. “I want what happens onstage to be the icing on the cake,” he says. “It’s about how to create a more craft-rich pool of actors in Portland.”
To get there, Mendelson is sailing the trimmest of ships. Portland Shakespeare Project will be a summer theater, he says, for at least its first five years. It is renting Artists Rep’s 166-seat Morrison stage plus some classroom space, and its inaugural season will consist of As You Like It and staged readings August 1-2 of Jeffrey Hatcher’s comedy Compleat Female Stage Beauty, about theater in England in the days when men still played women’s roles. The first-year budget? Forty-five thousand dollars. As Hamlet said: “Thrift, thrift, Horatio!”
Still, if things are tight, the help is impressive. There is Lucht, a proven commodity. Mendelson is effusive about the skills of his executive director, Karen Rathje. His artistic council includes, besides himself and Lucht, the talented theatrical literary manager Mead Hunter, Artists Rep’s associate artistic director Jon Kretzu (who is also Mendelson’s director in The Cherry Orchard), Turner of Northwest Classical Theatre, longtime leading actress Luisa Sermol, and Ronni Lacroute, co-owner of WillaKenzie Estate Winery, who is a significant supporter of adventurous performance companies in Portland. “I’m looking for people who want to be part of an artistic family,” Mendelson says.
As they might put it at Kornblatt’s Deli, that ain’t chopped liver.
ILLUSTRATIONS, from top:
- “The Weird Sisters,” from “Macbeth.” Henry Fuseli, 1783. Wikimedia Commons.
- Michael Mendelson, artistic director of the new Portland Shakespeare Project, as Gayev in “The Cherry Orchard” at Artists Repertory Theatre. Photo: OwenCarey/2011.