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Unicorn brings pertinent one-person play to the stage

Some might say there are advantages to being the only actor in a play. You wield complete control over the pacing, you don’t have to worry about other players forgetting their lines, and in the case of most one-person shows, the action is finished in 90 minutes and you might even get to a restaurant before the chefs have all gone home.

On the other hand, there’s the sheer terror. You’re all alone out there. Telling a story. In front of strangers. By yourself. Granted, you have sound and lighting designers, a director, a stage manager and others, all lurking up there in the dark somewhere. But did I mention you’re alone out there?

So just how scary is it? “On a scale of 1 to 10, I would say it’s somewhere in the 11 to 12 range, maybe up near 20,” said Katie Karel, who stars in the Lee Blessing’s 1999 Chesapeake at the Unicorn Theatre starting December 19th.

To be sure, the local veteran actor with national credits to her name was still in the early stages of prep for the show when we spoke in mid-November. Rehearsals hadn’t even started. But she was gearing up for the herculean task of learning 50 pages of text in which she performs a half-dozen characters and moves about the Unicorn’s Jerome Stage like an athlete for 90 minutes.

Katie Karel in Women Playing Hamlet_Photo by Manon Halliburton“If I felt confident at this point in time, that would be bad,” said Katie, who has appeared on just about all of the major Kansas City stages, with a laugh. In fact, she welcomes the fear factor. “Being scared is good. I actually care.” Though this is her first one-person show, when the Unicorn’s Producing Artistic Director Cynthia Levin approached her about the performance (which at its Off-Broadway premiere in New York was performed by a male actor) she jumped at the chance. “I love a challenge. I’m 31 years old and at a certain place in my career, and I want to do certain things.” On the other hand, she added with a laugh: “I’m as terrified as I am excited.”

Katie is no stranger to chatty plays. When we spoke, in fact, she had just finished a highly successful run of Neil Simon’s The Last of the Red Hot Lovers at North Coast Repertory Theatre near San Diego—where one critic wrote that she played Elaine with “bold, liberated fearlessness.”

“But that was all joke setups and punchlines,” Katie said. “You got your questions and your answers. Here, I’ll be relying on myself. … Luckily it’s a pretty cool play.” She added that she is comforted by the knowledge that, at the Unicorn, she’s surrounded by pros. “I’m not going to be alone up there, thank God: There will be a crew … silently working behind me. I just happen to be the only one up there at that point in time.”

Katie views Chesapeake as being akin to “having a conversation with yourself, and with the audience too, of course. … I’m definitely looking forward to understanding what the tricks of the trade are, because it is a different beast.”

Cynthia Levin and Zia Levin-Gil_Photo courtesy Unicorn TheatreTwenty years ago, Cynthia shied away from one-person plays, but in recent decades playwrights have embraced the genre with gusto—spurred partly by the strength of such works as William Luce’s The Belle of Amherst). There is now such a repertory of excellent one-person plays that the Unicorn can present one nearly every season. “And some of them are fantastic,” said Cynthia, who directs Chesapeake. “It’s almost become its own genre.” Indeed, the Unicorn has scored huge artistic successes in recent years with one-actor plays such as Grounded (with Carla Noack) and Buyer and Cellar (featuring Seth Golay).  

“Part of the allure, part of the romance of it is to see someone take on different characters before your eyes,” Cynthia said. “The roots of theater are in storytelling, sitting around the campfire. When you tell a great story, you take on a lot of voices and talk about lots of people and use your imagination.” This sort of no-technology-necessary art can only be done in the theater, she said. “Imagination … will never be lost. Theater will live on in the apocalypse.”

Chesapeake lends itself to the one-player genre: The protagonist, Kerr, is herself an avant-garde “performance artist” who is in the midst of battling a conservative Senator over the funding of controversial art. (“It’s even more relevant now than it was in 1999,” Cynthia said. “Someone always wants to drop the NEA.”) But in the second half of the play the artist takes her “performance” to unprecedented extremes and undergoes an interesting transformation (which I will not reveal here) that allows Kerr and the Senator to interact in new ways. The whole experience leaves both characters pondering big questions about the meaning of life and art.

Katie Karel in Heathers_Photo by Manon HalliburtonCynthia said she immediately thought of Katie for the role when re-reading it last year. “She is such an exciting actress: She does the unexpected. She is willing to attempt things that she’s never done before.” Cynthia also loves the unexpected twists and quirks in the play, and believes that Kansas City audiences have over the years grown more willing to be challenged by theater. “Anything that can take such a subversive stab at the establishment is okay with me.”

The protagonist of Chesapeake makes provocation her bread and butter, but her purpose is perhaps ultimately to build bridges, to make art in which seemingly disparate viewpoints melt in the face of pure human empathy. When Kerr and the Senator interact most intimately, Katie said, the play suddenly becomes about how we dehumanize each other during polarized debates, thus making discussion impossible.

“When you come face to face with humanity—are actually in a room with somebody you disagree with and figure out what you have in common, what you both need to exist in this world—it helps us to reach compromises, to open our eyes.”

Chesapeake runs from December 19th through January 7th. Call 816-531-7529 or go to unicorntheatre.org

Photos, from top: Katie Karel (courtesy of the Unicorn Theatre; Katie in the Unicorn’s Women Playing Hamlet (photo by Manon Halliburton); Cynthia Levin and Zia (courtesy of the Unicorn); and Katie in Heathers (Manon Halliburton). 

To reach Paul Horsley, performing arts editor, send email to paul@kcindependent.comor find him on Facebook or Twitter (@phorsleycritic).


Paul Horsley, Performing Arts Editor 

Paul studied piano and musicology at WSU and Cornell University. He also earned a degree in journalism, because writing about the arts in order to inspire others to partake in them was always his first love. After earning a PhD from Cornell, he became Program Annotator for the Philadelphia Orchestra, where he learned firsthand the challenges that non profits face. He moved to KC to join the then-thriving Arts Desk at The Kansas City Star, but in 2008 he happily accepted a post at The Independent. Paul contributes to national publications, including Dance Magazine, Symphony, Musical America, and The New York Times, and has conducted scholarly research in Germany, Austria and the Czech Republic (the latter on a Fulbright Fellowship). He also taught musicology at Cornell, LSU and Park University.



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