Renata Friedman: Seattle Theater's Waif-in-Chief

A distinctive, wiry physique and versatile talent keep her in demand.

Slurpee-straw-thin and long-limbed, Renata Friedman is hard to miss and impossible to forget. "I think my unique physicality, the fact that I'm so lanky and funny-looking, has helped in casting because I can set myself apart," says the five-foot, eight-inch ectomorph actress, with one knee drawn to her chest like human origami in the courtyard of the Intiman Theater. It seems to have worked so far. She's very much in demand this fall. At Intiman, she's currently appearing in a carnivalesque, highly licensed version of Moliere's A Doctor in Spite of Himself. Before that show ends its run, she'll go into rehearsal for Intiman's next production—a new adaptation of The Scarlet Letter that focuses on the relationship between adulterous Hester and her daughter Pearl. (Friedman will play the adult Pearl, who narrates the tale.) Then in January, Friedman (no relation to this writer) will appear at the Rep in a reprise of the one-woman show that first brought her notice in Seattle: The K of D. At 30, the articulate, hazel-eyed Capitol Hill-er from Port Townsend could not seem less diva-ish. "She's a shape-shifter," says Braden Abraham, associate artistic director at the Rep, who first directed Friedman in that solo show four years ago and will do so again this fall. "She disappears into character." Not a bad skill to have when you're taking on 16 roles at once, as Friedman does in The K of D, a ghost-story play by Laura Schellhardt about misfit adolescents. In 2005, Schellhardt's script won a New Play Award from ACT Theatre, which entitled it to a two-week workshop. ACT's casting director turned to Friedman, then living in New York, where she had trained at NYU's Tisch School for the Arts. "I came out [to Seattle] in February of 2006 to do the workshop and just clicked with Laura," Friedman recalls. "We just felt that it had been written for me." Soon after the workshop, though, as the play was booked for other cities, Friedman saw other actresses being hired. So she decided to produce a more extended run in Seattle herself. Which leads back to why it helps to come from a small town. As producer, she raised the funds from about 50 contributors in Port Townsend, where many residents knew her as the daughter of Rocky Friedman, owner of the Rose Theater cinema. (She still takes over the theater one month each year, so Dad can go on vacation.) "I did everything from designing the images for the marketing materials to writing the press releases and figuring out which printer to use for posters and what color ink and stapling posters all over Capitol Hill to cleaning the theater after every show," Friedman recalls with a "never again" look of fatigue. The show had 31 performances in Seattle, Port Townsend, and New York at the Fringe Festival in January. SW's Kevin Phinney called Friedman's work "sublime," saying she "plays each character as if it were the only one she really cared about," and the show got a rave in the New York Times. "The beneficial part of me producing and acting at the same time is that it distracted me from getting nervous," Friedman recalls. "But then at the same time I feel like I've never truly given the show what I can offer as an actor, or what I normally give to a show." Now she'll have the chance, as the Rep brings the piece to its Leo K. Theatre for a five-week run starting Jan. 14. By coincidence or (directors') design, a striking number of the shows Friedman has been cast in feel mythical in nature, with heightened, stylized language and magical-realist elements. Sarah Ruhl's Eurydice at ACT in 2009 eviscerated her nightly as she played an archetypal young woman who chooses her father's love over that of her fiance. In The Female of theSpecies, this past summer's urbane romp at ACT, the actress played an insightful goth waif who takes hostage her intellectual heroine. Friedman's trembly exhilar-ation—wielding gun, cuffs, and power—lent some psychological truth, and considerable laughs, to the farcical setup. For The K of D's run at the Rep, Friedman will "just" be acting. And instead of four lighting instruments and two speakers, she'll have what she giddily terms "all the technical equipment we could ever dream of." Not that a stage presence like Friedman needs much.

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