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Working in L.A., Living Tennessee

Robert Koehler is a frequent contributor to Calendar

Karen Kondazian recently found herself in an argument with a fellow actor, who insisted that good actors can play any role.

Any role at all? Absolutely, her friend replied.

“Nonsense,” she says, recalling the exchange as she looks out the sun-drenched windows of her Hollywood apartment. “I told him that there are Shakespeare actors, there are Tennessee Williams actors. I just can’t do Noel Coward--that dry wit, that gentility. It’s just not in me.”

But as any witness to her current performance as Lady in the Fountain Theatre revivalof Tennessee Williams’ long-neglected 1957 play “Orpheus Descending” can attest, Kondazian is definitely a Williams actor.

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And her Lady, which just garnered an Ovation Award nomination for leading actress, is only her latest in a heralded series of impassioned portrayals of Williams women: Serafina in “The Rose Tattoo” (Beverly Hills Playhouse, 1978); Alexandra Del Lago in “Sweet Bird of Youth” (at the now-defunct Hollywood-based Gene Dynarski Theatre, 1980); Mrs. Wire in “Vieux Carre” (Beverly Hills Playhouse, 1983); and Maxine in “Night of the Iguana” (San Diego’s Old Globe Theatre, 1987).

“To do Williams, you sort of have to live Williams,” Kondazian says. “And you damn well better be ready to explore your darkest insides. After the show is over, I can get depressed. You feel your mad, eccentric side coming out--Tennessee’s mad eccentricity. I really need to unwind with a book and a glass of wine. If you don’t watch out, this work can really get to you.”

Kondazian’s Lady is at the heart of an almost operatic play filled with loner heroes, a medicine man, gossipy small-town Southern gals and Ku Klux Klan racists, all part of an inevitable tragedy that brings down Lady and her itinerant troubadour lover, Val (Cameron Dye). Lady’s Italian father, after serving blacks at his casino, had been killed by Klan members, and the scar has remained with her.

“As the cast went over and over the play with [director] Simon [Levy],” Kondazian says, “we realized that the Outsider is the play’s key--Lady is a foreigner, Val is a wandering musician, others are artists or healers. And we decided that Jabe [Lady’s current husband] is a Klan Grand Dragon.

“What Simon and I wanted to bring out in Lady was her humor. I see in her hidden center this frightened little girl recalling the death of her father, but she covers it over in layers of being funny, being a mother.”

‘Living Williams,” as Kondazian terms it, has been a part of her since she was an earnest young acting student in high school in San Francisco, having already apprenticed at 13 with the city’s legendary Actors Workshop.

“I played Laura in ‘The Glass Menagerie’ in high school and, taking away her lame leg, I was Laura then--so painfully shy, withdrawn, completely out of step with my peers, with my head in the clouds. Kids used to make fun of me, tape toilet paper to my back in school and I wouldn’t know it. Those kinds of terrible things kids do to each other.

“So there was the rich--but my God so painful!--identification with Williams’ women back then,” says Kondazian, now in her 40s.

Born of Armenian Italian parents in Boston and certain that she would be an actor from age 8--when she went on “Art Linkletter’s House Party” as part of Linkletter’s panel of kid interviewees--Kondazian had unwavering support from her mother and stepfather. “They may have figured I was going through a phase,” she muses. “But they saw how good acting was for a shy girl, and it truly did save me.”

At San Francisco State, Kondazian studied with fellow students and future regional theater kingpins Daniel Sullivan, who became artistic director of Seattle Repertory Theatre, and South Coast Repertory co-founders David Emmes and Martin Benson. At the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art, she hung out with pals Stacy Keach, Andrew Robinson and Brian Cox, and later was brought in the fold of the Actors’ Studio, where Lee Strasberg told her she was “born to play Serafina.”

In her late 20s, a freak accident in which a bookcase toppled on her sent Kondazian into a coma. “I guess it was the price I paid for being such a voracious reader,” she chuckles darkly, “but I was close to dying. Being urged to do ‘Rose Tattoo,’ plus my parents’ support, helped me recover. If you’re near death, you realize you have two choices: Feel sorry for yourself and give in, or take hold of your life. I decided in my bed to produce and write and teach, beyond acting.”

Taking on the chores of producer, as well as star, of the “Rose Tattoo” revival, proved pivotal for Kondazian. Williams, in Los Angeles on other business and hearing of the Beverly Hills Playhouse production, saw it and reportedly said that he had never seen the play better directed than Clyde Ventura’s staging.

“We were at a luncheon honoring Tennessee hosted by the L.A. Drama Critics Circle, and he kept staring at my cleavage. He asked me at one point, ‘Could I touch them?,’ and I let him. He then joked, ‘Can I have them gift-wrapped?’ I was so disarmed that I laughed and we became fast friends.

“He told me that any of his plays were mine to produce. Can you imagine? But he never put it down on paper, so getting options wasn’t so easy.” Nevertheless, two years later, in 1980, Kondazian starred in and produced “Sweet Bird of Youth” with Ed Harris (“who’s totally unafraid of his sexuality”), and then presented the West Coast premiere of Williams’ obscure New Orleans memory play, “Vieux Carre.”

Williams, who had given Kondazian three of his unpublished plays to produce (including “The Notebook of Trigorin,” his adaptation of Chekhov’s “The Seagull”), had asked to see a videotape of the “Vieux Carre” performance. “We were en route to New York to record it,” Kondazian recalls, “when we heard that Tennessee had died.”

The playwright had admitted to her that “Orpheus” was never finished to his satisfaction--indicated by the play’s numerous revisions, from the 1940 “Battle of Angels” to the movie version, “The Fugitive Kind,” starring Anna Magnani and Marlon Brando. “He felt he had over-written the play, but also felt that the sudden [tragedy] at the end was sort of like life, how someone we know is suddenly dead. Like Tennessee’s death.

“I’ve always wondered why Americans love and despise Tennessee at the same time. We’re attracted to the sexuality, violence and emotion in his work, but there’s still this puritanical streak that holds us back. A young student after a performance of ‘Orpheus’ told me that the play made him feel like he was living with the characters, and felt embarrassed by it.

“But the actor on stage can’t afford those feelings. You just have to ride Tennessee’s emotional waves.”

*

“ORPHEUS DESCENDING,” Fountain Theatre, 5060 Fountain Ave. Dates: Thursdays to Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 7 p.m. Ends Nov. 3. Prices: $18-$22. Phone: (213) 663-1525.


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