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Fall Guide 2013: Karen Janes Woditsch has mastered the art of portraying Julia

TheaterJulia ChildMeryl StreepHIV - AIDSJulie & Julia (movie)

It takes moxie to play Julia Child any time, but tackling the role onstage a year after Meryl Streep nailed the beloved chef's bonhomie and trademark trill on screen in "Julie and Julia" seems especially daunting.

Yet Karen Janes Woditsch's Julia in "To Master the Art," which debuted at TimeLine Theatre in 2010, earned the veteran Chicago actor heaps of praise as well as an Equity Jeff Award nomination. Now, Woditsch steps back into Child's size 12 shoes in a revised version of William Brown and Doug Frew's biographical drama, opening Tuesday at the Broadway Playhouse under Brown's direction in a production with the Chicago Commercial Collective.

At an August interview in an Evanston coffeehouse, Woditsch described the process of finding Julia and figuring out quickly that the key was in Child's marriage to Paul Child, an American intelligence officer (as was Julia herself at one time) who brought his wife to Paris in 1949. There she attended classes at Le Cordon Bleu and finessed the recipes that would revolutionize American kitchens in "Mastering the Art of French Cooking," while he attempted to bring the best of American culture to a rebuilding Europe, only to have his career stalled by the forces of McCarthyism.

"I started small, I guess. The physicality wasn't my main concern at first," Woditsch says. "I was given that grace of not having to immediately assume the physical form of Julia Child because the play is so richly about the relationship."

Craig Spidle returns as Paul in the remount, and though both have long resumes in Chicago theater, they had never acted onstage together until this play. Spidle says, "I knew who she was, but that was about it." However, the two quickly developed the rapport that drives the story of Julia's blossoming from a housewife at loose ends in 1950s Paris to a household word in America.

"It was just a joy to share that with her," Spidle says. Though Woditsch sports a wig over her short red locks to create a reasonable facsimile of Child's appearance, Spidle notes, "When I look at Karen, I don't see Julia. I see my wife."

Brown had directed and performed with Woditsch numerous times, mostly at Glencoe's Writers' Theatre. Woditsch starred in the first-ever show at Writers' tiny bookstore-backroom space, 1993's "Love & Lunacy," which paired Nikolai Gogol's "Diary of a Madman" with adaptations of three Chekhov stories. Her co-star was her friend, the late Michael Barto, whom she met at the University of Iowa and who encouraged her to move to Chicago in 1988, where she first worked with Barto's educational HealthWorks Theatre on AIDS-awareness pieces.

Since "Love & Lunacy," Woditsch has made at least 20 appearances at Writers', even though artistic director Michael Halberstam recalls that he "was not overly impressed" with her first audition. However, at Barto's urging, he brought her back and, says Halberstam, "I saw immediately that I had made a mistake in my initial assessment, and I cast her on the spot." Now, he says, "as Writers' Theatre has grown and become more sophisticated, so has Karen."

Brown says he and Frew "were halfway through (the script), and we didn't allow ourselves to think who would play this role. And then we both said, 'Oh, it's Karen.'" He easily ticks off a list of the qualities that made Woditsch their go-to choice. "She is an extraordinary actress. She is also a great comedienne, which is no small thing. And she is also emotionally available."

Still, though Woditsch describes building her Julia from the inside out, the part also required her to spend hours and hours of time watching DVDs of "The French Chef." She also read and reread Child's memoir, "My Life in France." In fact, it was in her bag the day of the interview. (One thing she has not done yet is watch Streep's performance.)

In creating her Julia, Woditsch made several felicitous discoveries. "It's not just about her voice. It's about her mannerisms, how she actually handles the food. What was amazing to me was seeing the difference of when she'd be really exuberant and she'd be kind of throwing her arms out, holding up cleavers and pots and things, and then to actually watch her doing the technical stuff, chopping an onion and how effortless it was and how graceful it was."

Some of Julia has bled over into Woditsch's offstage domestic life with husband, Matthew, and their 9-year-old son, Benjamin. "Like Paul Child, my husband has had to eat a lot of experiments," she says with a laugh. "Some of my meals were excellent, and some my husband would say, 'We won't do this again.'"

"To Master the Art" plays through Oct. 20 at the Broadway Playhouse, 175 E. Chestnut St.; chicagocommercialcollective.com

ctc-arts@tribune.com

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