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THEATER AND FILM / Jan Herman

'Johnny' Gives Star a Chance to Break Out of Typecasting

September 26, 1989|Jan Herman

Karen Hensel jokes that in Hollywood the casting agents' book on her is "deep voice, strong face, good with dialect."

The result has been a string of television roles as a hearty Russian peasant ("Mama's Family"), a nasty French maid ("Murder, She Wrote"), a bitchy British executive ("Max Headroom") and, twice last season, take-charge American doctors ("It's a Living" and "Growing Pains").

Now, for the first time in her career, Hensel is playing a stage role that calls for frontal nudity and she finds it, well, surprising--but also strangely comfortable.

"I always have the character to protect me. She is my costume," the hazel-eyed actress said of Frankie in Terrence McNally's "Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune," a romantic comedy about a waitress and a short-order cook that opened over the weekend at South Coast Repertory.

Of course, appearing nude on the Costa Mesa theater's intimate Second Stage, which is surrounded on three sides by seats, can be a delicate matter, even though the scene is in dim lighting.

"We show less than I was willing to show, to protect the audience and to protect the piece," Hensel noted over lunch last week at a restaurant in Santa Ana. "We don't want to embarrass people. I'm not a nymphet, after all, or 24 years old."

What evokes her greatest trepidation is a different sort of exposure, however.

"Baring my breasts or any part of my body is not the hardest thing," said Hensel, who recalls being so shy as a child that her parents once enrolled her in a course to enhance self-confidence. "It's much more dangerous to be emotionally naked."

Indeed, for all the protection afforded by the character, the actress maintained that Frankie strikes a deeper emotional chord in her than anyone she has played in a long time. And that, not the nudity, has raised the artistic risks.

"A lot of the character is me," she asserted. "Her sense of humor is very much like mine. So is her suspicion and her fear that things are going to turn out badly. Of all my roles she is the most vulnerable. She may be tough on the surface, but underneath she's scared."

Hensel ought to be familiar to SCR playgoers. Over the past decade, she has had major roles in at least a half-dozen productions at the Tony-winning theater. Three seasons ago she played the lead, a former Vietnam medic, in Neal Bell's "Cold Sweat." The season before that she starred as the fiendish comedian in Terry Johnson's "Unsuitable for Adults." Both times her co-star was SCR founding member Richard Doyle, who is again her partner in "Frankie and Johnny."

Hensel, 40, also directs SCR's Adult Acting Conservatory. And she is the only SCR staffer to win a Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle acting award, for multiple roles in Caryl Churchill's "Top Girls," a 1984 production that transferred from the Second Stage to the Westwood Playhouse in Los Angeles.

"I'm not one of the founders who was here at the creation," said Hensel, who was born in Ventura and lives in Pasadena with actor Carl Reggiardo. "But I am 'a barnacle.' That's the term we use for people like me and Anni Long. We got here later and stuck."

Although Hensel received her training at the American College in Paris and at the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco, she cites SCR co-founder David Emmes as the most significant influence on her work.

Hensel traces her initial interest in acting to her globe-trotting family. As the daughter of an American foreign service officer posted to Africa for many years, she grew up in Libya and Ethiopia and frequently spent vacations in England.

"I was seeing plays at Stratford when I was 12," she said. "I saw Michael Rutherford on the stage. I saw Olivier when I was very young. I think all of that had an impact."

Her father's diplomatic status also provided social and intellectual perquisites that burnish her memories of adolescence. Hensel recalls a parade of celebrated cultural figures who came to dinner. One regular guest, for example, was the historian Arnold Toynbee.

Nevertheless, she believes that she was "bitten by the acting bug" largely for psychological reasons having less to do with cultural pretension or ambition than with deep feelings of insecurity.

"I think people who become actors know it early in life," Hensel reflected. "The classic reason is our need for approval. I was a very homely child, and I was in a show and I got this tremendous applause. It struck me like, 'Oh, so what if I'm not pretty. I can make people like me anyway.' "

Her quintessential experience in the theater, Hensel said, probably came as social activist Alice Bloomfield, the role she originated in Luis Valdez's "Zoot Suit" at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles. A drama about the Zoot Suit riots of World War II, it opened the 1978 season at the Taper, eventually moving to Broadway.

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