March 21, 2002        


ACTOR'S ACTOR: Beth Kennedy


The Koan of Comedy


The best comic actors are able somehow to let you in on a joke--to let you know they know it's funny--without winking or breaking character. They're able to stay within the material, fully committed, while at the same time lightly, subtly commenting on it, spinning it, shaping it.


This unique balancing act requires a special kind of alertness and presence, and a certain blend of selflessness (a willingness to risk looking foolish) and self-consciousness (a sense of proportion in relation to other performers and audiences). Indeed, this multilayered sensitivity is a trait of the best actors, comic or otherwise: They give us the illusion that we're observing a real person in a fraught or awkward human moment, but the illusion is a construction, a work of craft and inspiration, as much as any other work of art.


Beth Kennedy has created many such works of art for Los Angeles theatregoers, from her deceptively loosey-goosey roles in Troubadour Theatre Company's Shakespeare-inspired musical romps (Romeo Hall and Juliet Oates, recently at the Adelaide Fringe Festival in Australia, had her play a Mommie Dearest matriarch with terrifying makeup and equally frightening legwarmers; All's Kool That Ends Kool starts rehearsal next month) to finely drawn dramatic turns with Buffalo Nights Theatre Company (The Firebugs, Anatol) and roles that blur genre lines, such as The Memorandum at the Odyssey in 1999 or A Servant to Two Masters, last year at International City Theatre.


What may be most startling about Kennedy is her range: In a single week in 1999, I saw her as a flouncy, chillingly sunny uber-secretary in Havel's The Memorandum and as a gruff, mustachioed pirate--on stilts, no less--in Troubadour's Twelfth Dog Night. I had first had the privilege, years ago, of watching her work in rehearsals toward a semi-staged reading of a queasy love-triangle play by Doug Haverty, directed by Jessica Kubzansky; Kennedy approached the role seriously, with an intense, formidable focus. The high point of the play was a tentative, awkward misfired kiss between her needy character and her gay ex-husband--and it was just as funny, recognizably human, touching, and slightly disturbing as intended.


"To actually be funny, coming from a place that's so dead raw--that's why you like to go the theatre," said Kennedy in a recent interview. "I remember seeing Lena Horne: The Lady and Her Music on Broadway. I was blown away--how so in touch she was, so real. She'd been through stuff in her life, and she was able to communicate it through her singing."


Kennedy will be honored for her own unique communicative abilities at the Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle Awards, Apr. 1, receiving the special Natalie Schaefer Award, established by the late comic actress best known for playing Lovey Howell on Gilligan's Island to grant $5,000 each year to a promising young comic actress. But, as with most of the award's past recipients--Laurel Green, Bonita Friedericy, Jodi Carlisle, Gail Shapiro--Kennedy is not an actress I think of as exclusively or even primarily comic, though she often appears in comedies.


"Comedy has to do with how you interpret things in your life," she said. "It's so intense, so real, but you put a spin on it."


A spin indeed: As intensely as she works, a Kennedy performance is as poised and focused as Noh, even when she's playing a frazzled ditz. She starts big, she explained, arriving at rehearsal with a bag full of props and ideas, and makes "big choices. I like to start out big and bad and bold. I'm not self-conscious in the rehearsal process. That's the only way I can find the stuff that will make it in--by first going overboard." What makes it into a performance, even in "wacky and wild characters" or a play set in a "heightened reality," still has to "come from the gut, from inside," Kennedy said.


She got the crucial advice about the need to "act badly first" from a t'ai chi instructor at Cal Arts, where she went for her Masters in theatre after stumbling into plays at Loyola Marymount University. In acting, this Type-A California girl found a challenge, both physical and intellectual, that met her ultimate criterion: "I knew I wasn't going to get bored," she said.


The fourth child of a motivational speaker (who's also quite an actress herself, but that's a whole other story), Kennedy grew up a "painfully shy" overachiever who was "never rebellious" and had no interest in performing, though she could "always pull off dancing." A physical approach helps explain her stage poise (and her mastery of stilt-walking), but not her emotional resonance. It's a combination that has a bit of Laurie Metcalf's wilting soulfulness and a bit of Audrey Hepburn's feline grace.


"Acting helped me find a personality," Kennedy joked. "I don't know if I have one now."


She doesn't have one; Beth Kennedy has many. We can't wait to see the next.

--Rob Kendt