Karen MacDonald reinventing “M” as nightmarish good time

By R. J. Donovan
Special to The BIR

Karen MacDonald is one of Boston’s most accomplished and awarded actor-director-teachers. From the angst of Arthur Miller’s “All My Sons” through the struggle and survival of Brecht’s masterpiece “Mother Courage,” the fun and frivolity of “The Drowsy Chaperone,” profiling the life of Rose Kennedy in “The Color of Rose,” and a multitude of Shakespearean classics, diversity is practically her middle name.

Her latest challenge is the quirky new stage adaptation of Fritz Lang’s classic black and white 1931 murder mystery, “M.” In a case of transgendered casting, Karen takes on the role of Beckert, the serial killer portrayed in the film by the iconic Peter Lorre.
This highly anticipated premiere, described as “a nightmarish good time,” is by playwright-performer and local legend Ryan Landry, creator of the Gold Dust Orphans theater company. For the past three decades, Landry has become known for his bold, surreal, comically irreverent mash-ups of pop culture.
A combination of light and shadow, screwball comedy and drama, this new version of “M” is presented by The Huntington Theatre, which has become a kind of home away from home for Karen over the years. (Peter DuBois, artistic director at the Huntington, calls her “our local acting treasure.”)
Born in Norwood, and raised in South Boston before moving to Milton, Karen is a BU graduate who began her professional career in Boston’s popular improv group, The Proposition. She’s also a founding member of the American Repertory Theatre. In addition to her work on stage, she has taught acting and directing at Boston College as the “Rev. J. Donald Monan, S.J., Professor in Theatre Arts.”
We spoke prior to a full day of rehearsal. Here’s an edited look at our conversation.
BIR: Your first time on stage was in a children’s play?
KM: When our family moved from Southie to Milton, it was the summer time and my mother was trying to get me engaged in some activity . . . Down the street at Fontbonne Academy, where I ended up going to high school, they had a children’s theater program. I’d never really done anything like that before, but she took me down and I did a little audition for the sister that ran it. I first went on stage in a play when I was 9 -- “Pinocchio,” and I’m not ashamed to say it.
BIR: Speaking of Southie, people are still talking about your work at the Huntington in “Good People,” set in South Boston and written by South Boston native David Lindsay-Abaire.
KM: That was a character very close to my heart because she was a Southie girl. The character of Jean reminded me of a friend of my mom’s. She was a little rough around the edges but she had a big heart and would do anything for you.
BIR: And now you’re back at the Huntington in a totally new creation. A very different one, as well.
KM: “M” takes place in Berlin in the present moment, which was 1931. There is someone who is killing children. They disappear. Sometimes they’re found and sometimes they’re not. But they’re pretty much sure it’s a serial killer.
BIR: And the focus of who’s at fault and who should be out capturing the killer keeps shifting.
KM: Who’s responsible? Is it the mother’s fault because she didn’t watch her child every second? Is it the government’s fault because they don’t have ways to protect children? Is it the police’s fault because they’re not looking out? It really is this look at society and what gets passed off to somebody else.
BIR: Ironically, it’s the criminals who capture the killer in the end.
KM: The police are not having much luck and they’re getting pressure from all the politicians . . . The police put on a big drive to find suspects anywhere. And they’re digging into the criminal elements of that strata of Berlin society. And the criminals [say], “You know the cops are breaking up our card games and coming into our speakeasys . . . We have to find this killer”. . . They set up a kind of kangaroo court and (Beckert) has to speak for himself. . . At the end, (Lang) leaves is very unresolved.
BIR: Even Lang had a run-in of his own with the government.
KM: Right around the time he was making “M” he was called into the office of Joseph Goebbels, who was a big fan of his work. As soon as he left the office, he literally went home, packed and was gone from Germany the next day. He never went back. He said, “I’m not going to be their mouthpiece.”
BIR: His style was, and still is, quite innovative. His visuals are striking.

KM: The film is very interesting technically because sometimes Lang would have a chase scene and it’s in total silence. Like it’s a silent movie. There’s no music, there’s nothing. It almost seems like, “My God, you could never do that in a movie now. We need to hear these footsteps running down the street.” And instead, he’s like, “No, you don’t. Actually, you can just watch it.”
BIR: And now Ryan Landry is putting his own inimitable fingerprint on the piece.
KM: Because of Ryan’s unique style, the way that he likes to tell stories, it’s a real interesting blend. Some of his stuff is very funny, extremely funny, hilarious. I know that he’s been working and wrestling with keeping true to the style of his writing and also dealing with the seriousness that is in this film, which he does not treat lightly. He is not making fun of it, because why would anyone do that. It’s an interesting experiment – for playwright, for director, for actors, for designers – to find the wall where it’s okay for people to laugh at certain things. But at some point, the show turns and becomes quite a serious matter. How do you accommodate that with a design? How do you take something that appears lighthearted and let it switch and change? That’s been an interesting part of the process for all of us.
BIR: It must be demanding to work on reinventing something like this.
KM:(Laughing) All of a sudden I make it sound so deadly serious, but it’s also been a huge amount of fun. The parts that are fun have been amazing to watch be created . . . They’re going to imagined in really beautiful ways . . . We’ll hopefully make it exciting and different and also pay respect to an amazing film and the questions that it brings up . . . Its going to provide people with a real opportunity to see something different. Throwing these kinds of ideas out on stage and seeing what happens. It’s not a safe idea, it’s exciting. It will be interesting to see how people respond to it.
R. J. Donovan is publisher of OnStageBoston.com.
Ryan Landry’s “M,” through April 27, The Huntington Theatre at the Calderwood Pavilion, 527 Tremont Street in Boston. Tickets: 617-266-0800 or huntingtontheatre.org.