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Belly Up to the Bard, Girl!

Musical theater star Karen Ziemba takes on the role of Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing at The Shakespeare Theatre in D.C. logo
Karen Ziemba in Much Ado
(Photo: © Carol Rosegg)
There's a sleek, radiant actress with an incendiary grin who's currently reigning as a noblewoman onstage in the heart of Washington, D.C.'s theater district. She happens to be one of Broadway's musical theater stalwarts -- but, this time, she's not singing a note.

So, why is Tony winner Karen Ziemba intoning the Bard in the nationa's capital, in a production of Much Ado About Nothing that originated at Hartford Stage in Connecticut? "It's very important for a live theater performer today to be diverse," Ziemba explains over lunch at a restaurant down the block from The Shakespeare Theatre, where Much Ado is running through January 5. "That's my goal. And I don't mean it in the sense of playing a villain one day and then the kind woman next door. I mean the singing, the movement, the acting; doing classical theater, being able to do dialects and play people of different cultures. If you want to work, you have to have the skills."

With craft, of course, must come credibility in a role. "It's not just being able to do something technically," says Ziemba, "it's also about being able to inhabit a character. The technique and skill come about with practice and honing and hard work, but I believe that being able to inhabit a character is something you either have or you haven't." (Her abilities in that regard have made Ziemba very much in demand as a narrator of audiobooks, particularly contemporary novels by such writers as Luanne Rice and Jennifer Weiner.)

In her sparkling musical theater career, Ziemba -- known fondly to friends and colleagues as KZ -- has tapped and gamboled through more than a score of shows in roles she's created (Contact, Steel Pier), parts she's inherited as a replacement (42nd Street, Crazy For You, Chicago), and others she's resurrected in revival (110 In the Shade, The Pajama Game). Still, there's no escaping the grim reality that such opportunities -- particularly the tantalizers that have had her acting, singing, and dancing -- are surfacing less and less often.

So, what's a performer to do? You find ways to stretch. First of all, Ziemba observes, "you can become a better actor as you get older because your life experience is so much richer. You incorporate that into the roles you play -- your understanding of how much deeper your emotions are, how much tighter your fuse is, and how much more willing you are to say 'I don't care anymore, I'm just gonna go for it. I'm gonna be the bitch or the abusive person.' Sometimes it's a happy story, sometimes it's not. For me, to do classical theater in high British style is just another step up the mountain -- very different from what I did 10 years ago."

The challenge of playing Shakespeare against a backdrop of post-WWI England -- the concept of director Mark Lamos, who's also artistic director of Hartford Stage -- was both technical and emotional. "Shakespeare's words are musical in their own right," says Ziemba. "What I have to do -- the concentration I use in my performance -- isn't about keeping my toes pointed or being able to balance in an arabesque. It's about speaking those words eloquently, with wit and understanding, as I portray Beatrice -- this witty, intelligent woman who was created in the 16th century yet is very much a feminist we can relate to today."

Karen Ziemba and Dan Snook
as Beatrice and Benedick
(Photo: © Carol Rosegg)
The smart, independent foil for the confirmed bachelor Benedick (played by Dan Snook), Beatrice is a 180-degree spin from the damaged goods Ziemba achingly portrayed eight times a week in the second act of Contact. That browbeaten wife who lives for her reveries could never spit out "If I were a man, I would eat his heart in the marketplace," one of Beatrice's more pungent pronouncements. (The way Ziemba sees it, "Beatrice is so thoughtful and calculating that she creates her witticisms as she goes along.")

Ziemba's current encounter with Shakespeare -- her first as a professional -- adds one more role to a very brief roster of non-singing parts. Years ago, she appeared in summer stock at Connecticut's Ivoryton Playhouse in Lanford Wilson's The Fifth of July and Larry Shue's The Foreigner. After leaving Contact, she delved into Alan Ayckbourn's synergistic exercises House and Garden at Rochester's Geva Theater. Then she auditioned for Lamos's project. He'd seen her in 1996 for Under Milk Wood but passed; this time, the callback came. "Mark gave me an adjustment to work on," Ziemba relates. "I came in and I guess I did my homework, because he cast me."

KZ hasn't taken acting classes recently but considers her rehearsal period in Hartford to have been the equivalent: "Here was Mark and my leading men, who are all conservatory-trained, classical actors. Milla Riggio, the dramaturg at Trinity College, is a Shakespearean scholar; and Elizabeth Smith, the dialect coach, had been at Juilliard for years. I was in the room with all of these people who were divulging stuff about the Bard, what the words meant, how you would emphasize this line or that in the play. They would refer to other plays of Shakespeare with similar characters. It was like a one-week graduate studies course!"

As for Ziemba's dancing talent, audiences at Much Ado are getting a taste of it: Lamos employed choreographer Sean Curran (The Dead, Stomp) to add to the venture -- not surprising in light of Benedick's orders at the end of the play, "Let's have a dance 'ere we are married, that we may lighten our own hearts and our wives' heels." Indeed, in keeping with the elegant garden setting of the play as well as the Jazz Age time frame and the court atmosphere, there are dabs of dancing throughout the production with Ziemba in the thick of things -- jitterbugging, fox-trotting, waltzing, tangoing, leading a conga line, at the center of a Charleston.

And at the end, during an encore triggered by the Bard's explicit stage direction, there's a little cradle flip to flutter the hearts of fans. Ultimately, with Benedick's help, Karen Ziemba literally soars.

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