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Larger Than Life: Maria Mercedes Returns to Perth for Into The Woods

After launching their 2023 season using the historic WACA Ground for Bizet’s opera Carmen, the West Australian Opera is gearing up to open its second show of the season, Into the Woods. The 1987 musical by Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine, is coming to His Majesty’s theatre for eight performances from March 23 to April 1. Australia’s very own Maria Mercedes will be playing one of the show’s most iconic roles, The Witch. This role is one of many well-known and beloved characters Maria has played, including Grizabella in Cats, Luisa Contini in Nine and Maria Callas in Master Class. Many Aussies will also recognise Maria from her on screen credits which include The Tourist, Neighbours, Greeks on the Roof and more.

I caught up with Maria ahead of Into the Wood’s opening night to learn more about her interpretation of The Witch, bringing such iconic characters to life and how it feels to be performing to Perth audiences.

You’ve played many iconic characters over your career, and now The Witch, what attracts you to these characters?

Firstly, the kind of performer that I am, I guess I’m larger than life. I have tended to have enveloped or embodied characters that are larger than life per se. For example, Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard, Maria Callas in Masterclass. It’s those kinds of personas that are large yet full of humanity as well. The Witch, although she is, I guess, the outcast in this fable that Stephen Sondheim has put together, she is probably more attuned to Mother Earth, and the laws that we have to abide to exist together as a community within a Kingdom. And that Kingdom is the planet Earth.

I love The Witch’s own journey, too, because the only reason she’s able to impart wisdom to the rest of the kingdom, is because she fell prey to wanting this or that, and paying any price to get what you think you want. In actual fact, it’s not what you want, and it’s not what you need.

This larger than life storytelling that you’re talking about,  how does that play into the fairytale nature of the story?

The fairytales are just an instrument so that people can identify with these personas, characters, caricatures and archetypes. We’ve all read these fairytales, at one time or another, so it draws us immediately. Very cleverly, the audience starts to identify with these so-called fairytale characters. We have the baker and his wife, who desperately want a child, that could be anybody. Little Red Riding Hood, who was quite a glutton and her job is to look after her grandmother. That could anybody as well. [Fairy tales] are an amazing instrument to draw people into the story.

Image: Maria Merecedes

There are many subtleties within these large stories and roles. As an actor, how do you bring them to life?

You have to dig deep and find the humanity within the character. The first half of the show is just setting up all these characters and yes, they’re all kind stereotypical. And yes, I’m that “wicked witch”. But I had to find her humanity to help me get through to the second act where everyone is exposed, even herself. She’s quite a damaged human being, she’s an outcast, not wanting to be a part of that kingdom. She’s searching for a way to revert herself back to how she used to be. Personally, I’ve gone through my life and have wanted to change things and to revert them back to when I felt I was a better person. That’s the way I looked at playing her.

The characters have to be identifiable as soon as the second act begins otherwise people won’t get the story, people won’t get the lesson. We want people to leave the theatre and have an epiphany of their own. Maybe they’ll recognise something that hasn’t been right in their own lives and they might try and rectify that.

Interestingly, in this show it’s the female collective that has the power to change things. Every female character in Into the Woods is part of Stephen Sondheim’s own mother’s personality. So, we encompass that. The Giant also represents many things within the show and from Stephen’s life. The character represents a foreboding, if we don’t look after our planet- it will leave us. For Stephen, because he wrote this in the 80s, he lost a lot of his friends in the AIDS crisis and The Giant also represented that for him.

I always believe roles are going to teach me something personally and The Witch is definitely teaching me a lot at the moment. 

How do you feel about being in Perth and presenting the show to these audiences?

I’m just so thrilled to be here, I love Perth. It’s one of the very first places I performed when I was a 17-year-old, and had won TV talent contests at the age of 16. For decades I’ve toured with musicals here such as Chicago and Menopause The Musical three years ago, just before the pandemic kind of closed the world. I also did a play at the Heath Ledger Theatre called Anthem. I’ve had a long, illustrious display of my work here. I find that Perth audiences, unlike the East audiences, are not only appreciative, but they are really open, and they get it. They’re not jaded or faded and they don’t take anything for granted. They listen, they truly do. I feel if I was to do Into the Woods anywhere in Australia, I think this is the place where it was meant to be.

Into The Woods presented by the West Australian Opera is on from March 23 to April 1.