She Triumphed in “Chesapeake.” Now the KC Actress is Poised to Wow Audiences Again.
In 2015 the British actress Carey Mulligan won raves and a Tony nomination for her role as Kyra in David Hare’s “Skylight,” chronicling the heartrending interplay of two former lovers reunited following the death of the man’s wife.
This May, Kansas City audiences will be able to see local actress Katie Karel reprise the role of Kyra in the Kansas City Actors Theatre production of Hare’s award-winning play, lauded by “The New York Times” theater critic Ben Brantley as “one of the most intelligently sentimental love stories of our time.” Expectations for another top-notch performance are high.
After all, the beginning of 2018 saw Karel command the Unicorn stage in the one-woman play “Chesapeake,” in which she portrayed various characters, including a dog.
“Karel performs with force and precision,” wrote Deborah Hirsch of “The Pitch,” “holding our focus and anchoring the show.” “Chesapeake” began in late December (a challenging holiday slot), to relatively small audiences, but was sold out in the last few weeks. “Broadway World” exclaimed, “By the show’s end, Karel’s authenticity indeed proves that she is . . . well . . . a true performance artist.”
Karel followed “Chesapeake” with “The Wit of Cole Porter and Noel Coward” at Quality Hill Playhouse. A mezzo-soprano, she is in high demand for musical theater and has triumphed in “Evita,” “Always . . . Patsy Cline,” “Sweeney Todd” and “Hairspray,” and many other plays. In addition to appearing in KC productions, Karel has performed in New York, San Diego and the Iowa tourist capital, Okoboji. She’s also appeared in many commercials and participated in school camps and education efforts.
Karel and her two sisters grew up in a close family in Seward, Nebraska. Expressions like “by golly” and “dang it” pepper her language. She loved literature and writing and long thought she would be an English teacher. But her favorite English teacher was also the school theater director, and Karel found herself following that course. She applied to several theater-rich colleges and decided upon Stephens College in Columbia, Missouri. Although it was primarily an economic decision, she ended up loving the all-girl college. The theater training was excellent and she had opportunities more illustrious schools might not have afforded her.
All that led her to Kansas City and, rather quickly, to a steady schedule of acting work at The New Theatre, KC Rep, The Coterie, The Unicorn, Musical Theater Heritage and Quality Hill Playhouse. One of her favorite roles was Kerr in “Chesapeake,” because the part intimidated her and demanded so much. Other favorites included Eva Peron and Patsy Cline, “because the history and therefore the research is at your fingertips, and those two in particular were models of female strength who left us tragically too soon.”
But Karel’s number-one pick is Dot in Stephen Sondheim’s “Sunday in the Park with George.” Citing Sondheim’s genius and challenge, she said it’s the one role she would love to repeat. Parts she dreams about include Hedda Gabler, Roxanne of “Cyrano de Bergerac,” Sally Bowles in “Cabaret” and Fanny Brice in “Funny Girl.”
These hopes and plans were unimaginable not so long ago.
While performing the role of a high schooler in “Heathers” at The Unicorn in June 2016, Karel was feeling far from her best. She saw a doctor and was sent immediately for tests. After a rare non-Hodgkins lymphoma was diagnosed, she endured a full year of treatment, including severe chemotherapy and a bone marrow transplant. Under the care of her mother, who moved down from Nebraska, Karel tried to maintain her acting chops through readings and practice. To keep up her spirits, she took up the guitar. She was cheered on by a fundraiser honoring her at The Unicorn.
Karel’s recovery continues. Although her hair was still growing in as she started “Chesapeake” and she laments chemo-caused memory problems, her success in “Chesapeake” was greatly encouraging. Like a surprising majority of performers, she’s subject to stage fright and anxiety.
“When it comes to auditions, I get nervous . . . I mean bodily shakes, light-headed, I forget basically everything I’ve ever learned,” she said in a recent interview. Although Karel hoped her battle against a life-threatening illness would make her bolder and more thick-skinned, she’s found it to be somewhat the opposite. She sees in herself an added vulnerability while at the same time, a heightened determination, “an acute awareness of what I want to do.” That includes meaningful, socially relevant roles and the promotion of theater to younger audiences and “special needs” youth.
Karel lauds theater companies’ “pay what you can” nights bringing in younger patrons, and she strives to enlighten the public about the strength and vibrancy of Kansas City as a theater town.
That she’ll do it all is a good bet. As “Broadway World” wrote, “her dynamo never fades.”
“Skylight” runs from May 23 through June 10 at the H&R Block City Stage at Union Station. For tickets, www.kcactors.org or call the Central Ticket Office, 816.235.6222.
Above: Actress Katie Karel inside the Green Lady Lounge. Photo by Jim Barcus.