Regional theatre got a holiday gift last month in the package of actress Karen Kandel -- a member of the bold, experimental theatre troupe Mabou Mines -- who has been a celebrated N. Y. downtown artist for years but who has rarely ventured beyond that charmed circle.
That's now changed with her critically-acclaimed Los Angeles theatrical debut last month in the Geffen Playhouse's production of Peter and Wendy, the retelling of J. M. Barrie's immortal tale of Peter Pan as interpreted by Mabou Mines director Lee Breuer. This on the heels of her featured role in Anna Deavere Smith's new drama, House Arrest: First Edition, which premiered in late November at the Arena Stage in Washington, D.C., in a co-production of four regional theatres, also including Los Angeles's Mark Taper Forum, Chicago's Goodman and Seattle's Intiman.
The only thing "Peaches" and "Wendy," the names of the characters which Kandel played back to back, have in common is the sunny whimsy attached to them -- not unlike the lovely African-American actress herself. Wendy waltzes about a nursery in a long, white, lacy nightgown wistfully recalling a wondrous chapter in her childhood in this Obie-winning Mabou Mines production for which Kandel provides the voices for all the other characters, which are played by puppets.
Peaches, on the other hand, is an ex-con, both a narrator and an agent of unimaginable horrors perpetrated on children in House Arrest, which features an ensemble cast of 14 and deals in quasi-journalistic fashion with the mythic role of the presidency in American history. Yet, the versatile Kandel says, "I don't find that much difference between the kind of horror and tragedy in First Edition and the kind of emotions you find in Peter and Wendy. We are all capable of good and evil. The key to both characters is finding their humanity. Peaches wants to fly as much as Wendy."
For more than two decades, Kandel -- a self-de-scribed "theatre baby" who lives in Manhattan with her husband, actor Paul Kandel (Uncle Ernie in Broadway's The Who's Tommy) -- has la-bored long in the non-profit arena, sharpening her skills by working with such uncompromising directors as Elizabeth Swados, Anne Bogart, Andre Serban, Douglas Hughes and Lee Breuer. As such, she was well-prepared to participate in Deavere Smith's ambitious play for which she conducted over 300 interviews.
The ensemble of actors plays a theatre troupe, joined by three prisoners in a work-release program, who are presenting a post-modernist work of the presidency, combining historical reconstruction -- Thomas Jefferson and his purported slave-mistress, Lincoln's assassination, FDR's Four Freedoms, Clinton's sex scandals -- with the theatre-verite techniques, which Deavere Smith has previously used in her own solo works. Thus, Kandel, as Peaches, waltzes about in crinolines, but also is the voice and person of Alexis Herman, Clinton's Secretary of Labor; Paulette Jenkins, an inmate at Baltimore prison; Patricia Williams, a Columbia Law Professor. All the material, with cameos from Clinton, Peggy Noonan, Studs Terkel, among others, is interwoven into a layered discourse on political power. In D.C. the play was an unwieldy three-and-a-half hours, but all the last-minute frantic editing and changes didn't phase Kandel.
"I told Anna that I was exhausted and scared but really excited and happy at the same time," she says. "I'm so used to working in experimental theatre, which is so spontaneous and collaborative that when I'm presented with a formal, finished script, it's almost weird."
-- By Patrick Pacheco