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Poised to Fly

Karen Kandel's career is taking off, with her next adventure the un-Disneyish 'Peter and Wendy.'

November 30, 1997|Patrick Pacheco | Patrick Pacheco is a regular contributor to Calendar from New York

Peaches and Wendy are the names of two characters actress Karen Kandel is playing these days in two productions heading for Los Angeles.

While the names of these characters share a sunny whimsy not unlike the woman who is creating them, they are not alike. Wendy is an imaginative wizard who waltzes about a nursery in a long, white Victorian dress and magically conjures up a host of characters. She is Wendy in "Peter and Wendy," the critically acclaimed retelling of J. M. Barrie's immortal tale of Peter Pan adapted by New York's Mabou Mines theater troupe that opens at the Geffen Playhouse on Tuesday.

Peaches, on the other hand, wears the orange regulation jumpsuit of a drug-dealing ex-convict who in the course of Anna Deavere Smith's new drama, "House Arrest: First Edition," is both a narrator and an agent of unimaginable horrors perpetrated on children. Featuring an ensemble cast of 14, "House Arrest" uses quasi-journalistic narrative to describe the mythic role of the presidency in American history. It premiered Nov. 19 at the Arena Stage Theatre in Washington, D.C., and is co-produced by four regional theaters, including the Mark Taper Forum, where it will play April 16-May 31.

While both plays deal with loss of innocence, the stunning contrast between the light and dark tone of each is all in a day's work for the versatile Kandel, who sees a surprising affinity between the two.

"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,' " she says. "We are all capable of all of these things--good and evil. The key to both characters is finding their humanity, their desires, their hopes, and their deepest fantasies. Peaches wants to fly as much as Wendy does."

Kandel herself is also poised to fly. For more than two decades, the self-described "theater baby"--who lives in Manhattan with her husband, actor Paul Kandel (Uncle Ernie in the original production of "The Who's Tommy")--has labored long and hard in relative obscurity in what she calls "poor theater": the nonprofit, experimental arena where she has worked with such uncompromising directors as Elizabeth Swados, David Gordon, Anne Bogart, Andre Serban, Douglas Hughes, and Lee Breuer, the last of whom co-founded Mabou Mines 27 years ago. Kandel joined Mabou Mines ("Gospel at Colonus," "An Epidog") a decade ago, playing among many other roles a voodoo-inspired Creole Edgar/Edna in dreadlocks in the group's gender-bending "King Lear," for which she won her first Obie.

"Peter and Wendy" writer Liza Lorwin approached Kandel six years ago for "Peter and Wendy," although the show wouldn't have its premiere until 1996, at the Spoleto Festival in South Carolina (the production moved later that year to New York's Public Theatre and the New Victory in 1997). For the role, she won her second Obie, and finally got singled out for the critical acclaim that many in the business had been foreseeing for years. In the show, Kandel not only plays Wendy, but also provides the voices of everyone else, from the plucky Peter to a Scottish-burred Mr. Darling, an ominous Capt. Hook and all of the Lost Boys. These characters are represented by puppets manipulated, bunraku-style, by seven silent actors veiled in beekeeper-style outfits.

Some are shadow puppets on a stick, others mere toys, and some appear to be just a heap of rags (Nana). But they are all enlivened by Kandel, who in what the New York Times described as a "coup-de-thea^tre," turns her nursery into a wonderland. Bed sheets unfurl to become the masts of Hook's ship, an ironing board becomes its plank, flapping bedclothes represent the Darling children's flights around the room while the Scottish-tinged music performed live by fiddler Johnny Cunningham and vocalist Susan McKeown underlines the wistful melancholy and repressed infantile eroticism of this much darker, adult version of the tale--playing out what Breuer calls "the impossible romance" between Peter and Wendy.

"Karen is an exotic," says Breuer, "and, as a black woman in Barrie's white world, she is this incredible combination of Victorian delicacy--Wendy--and magical orientation--Peter. In her heart of hearts, she is a romantic, almost like a Henry James heroine. As a person, she is very intelligent but emotionally built like a child. Her whole unconsciousness is her conscious, her emotions are very accessible."

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