On a chilly autumn night in Washington, D.C., during a dinner break between a rehearsal and the press opening of "House Arrest," the 40-ish Kandel is pacing outside the Arena Theatre, a strikingly lovely presence with her elfin face, short-cropped hair and rail-thin, boyish frame. She is dressed in a long cable-knit sweater over black tights and looks far younger than her years--which she won't be specific about. Combining hip androgynous sexiness and childlike naivete, Kandel certainly doesn't betray any nervousness about facing the critics in less than two hours as she walks to a Chinese restaurant, reflecting on the capital's bureaucratic stone palaces and the myth of power that is at the heart of Smith's ambitious play.
The ensemble of actors plays a theater troupe and three prisoners in a work-release program who together are presenting a Postmodern work about the presidency, combining historical reconstruction with the theater-verite interview techniques of Smith's previous solo works ("Fires in the Mirror" and "Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992"). Kandel, as Peaches, waltzes about in a white petticoat as Sally Hemmings, the alleged slave-mistress of Thomas Jefferson, but she also is the voice and person of Alexis Herman, President Clinton's Secretary of Labor who recounts a harrowing story of herself as a 5-year-old child watching her father being beaten by Klansmen; Paulette Jenkins, an inmate at a Baltimore prison who is held responsible for her crack addict lover's beating of her 7-year-old daughter; and Patricia Williams, a Columbia law professor who digresses on the Jefferson-Hemmings liaison. All the material is interwoven into a layered discourse on political power, and it is billed as a work-in-progress. But last-minute frantic editing and changes don't faze Kandel.
"I told Anna that I was exhausted and scared but really excited and happy at the same time," she says, settling into a restaurant booth for a quick bite before returning to her apartment for an hour of meditation. "I'm so used to working in experimental theater, which is so spontaneous and collaborative, that when I'm presented with a formal, finished script, it's almost weird."
Indeed, her ability to roll with the punches is what made Smith lobby so intensely for Kandel to participate in "House Arrest," even though her prior commitment to "Peter and Wendy" meant that the actress would only play previews and two opening performances of the Washington, D.C., run before returning to New York for rehearsals of the Mabou Mines production. (Kandel still hasn't decided whether she will return to Smith's play at other venues, including L.A.) Smith had known Kandel's work since 1975, when she saw her in Swados' "Nightclub Cantata," and says she had always wanted to write a role for Kandel.
"Karen has worked with all these great directors and pays such a meticulous attention to detail that I knew she would inspire and lift up the company," the playwright-actress says, adding that she also knew Kandel's calm, inventive presence would strike just the right note for such a complex project.
Kandel admits that, despite some "really tough times" during the rehearsal period, her cheerfulness puzzled the cast, some of whom wondered aloud how she could manage to keep smiling while working on some truly devastating testimony, particularly from prison inmate Jenkins.
"I'd tell them, 'Maybe I'm just stupid or naive, on some level I am 5 years old,' " she recalls with a laugh. "I really haven't experienced a lot that other people have. When new material is being thrown at me, or stuff which is really difficult, I turn off my brain so I don't get completely overwhelmed by it. I would rather just do, rather than think."
Kandel says that when Lorwin first approached her to play in "Peter and Wendy," she realized that she was only familiar with the Disney cartoon of the tale and had to immerse herself in the original Barrie works. There she found a version of childhood that wasn't all "sweetness and light" but filled with a "cruelty, insensitivity and sexual tension" that she immediately could understand. "I thought, 'Ohmigod, this is my life, this is the way I remember childhood.' Right after doing 'Peter and Wendy' at the Public, I went into therapy for the first time because it uncovered all these feelings, these feelings that drive me still because I'm so connected to them."