Controlling herself

Controlling herself

Meeting Karie Miller is somewhat nerve-wracking.

Not entirely, because the 26-year-old actress performs with a “stage is my world” savviness that suggests she does well in social interaction; if she doesn’t, she has the improvisational skills to give the impression of comfort (thanks a lot, Second City workshop!). She has immense eyes that act as her expressive centerpieces, that propel an audience’s gaze towards the object of her desire or repulsion. Nothing about her says “impulsion;” rather, she seems unshakeably deliberate in her acts and words. Karie Miller has complete creative control.

The problem is that each of Miller’s nine roles in the Live Arts production of Michele Lowe’s String of Pearls is so totally hers—a completely realized physical presence, history and voice—that Curtain Calls wonders if he could tell Karie from her characters. Miller’s turn in Pearls is the sort of performance that makes theater laymen curse intermissions and buy tickets for their friends; she converts audiences as easily as she moves herself through characters like Cindy, the 300-pound grave digger, or Linda, the middle-aged mom-of-the-year type that seems to waste away in a pile of sand among a group of beach-going divorcees. Karie Miller has complete control of her audience.

Precious pearl: Karie Miller unveils a startling array of characters on the set of String of Pearls, showing through June 28 at Live Arts.

As she approaches, tall and slender, sunglasses pushed back from those eyes that catch gazes only to toss them where her characters command, Curt notices the pattern of her dress: a series of black squares within white circles, white squares within gray circles. He thinks: Karie Miller can fit a square peg into a round hole. A woman turns towards Miller and compliments her on her “wonderful show,” and he thinks: Karie Miller has complete control of the interview.

After completing her BFA in acting at Northern Kentucky University, Miller spent a year in North Carolina performing in community theater productions before accepting a spot in the UVA drama department. For the performance portion of her thesis, Miller took the role of “Maria” in the UVA production of Twelfth Night. For the second component of her thesis, Miller took a route that no other performer in her class opted for: a “community outreach” effort that paired her with the Live Arts teen theater program, LA:T4.

And that is when Karie Miller lost control.

Not through any fault of her own, however. The drama department couldn’t find an Olivia for Twelfth Night, so Miller took the part. “Maria is not only from a different block of wood than Olivia,” she says with a laugh, “she’s from a different forest.” What’s more, Miller went from her lead role as the provocateur wife, Mama Ubu, in Ubu Roi, to rehearsals for the significantly more visible role of Olivia. And there was still a Live Arts commitment to be fulfilled.

Yet Miller played Olivia with a lusty pop and flirtation that elevated UVA’s production, admirable for such short notice. And she managed to secure enough time to write a piece of original theater in eight months with a cast of eight local performers, titled A Comic Ballad of Misfortune and performed through May at Live Arts. All while exercising her uniquely mystical brand of control over her audience.

“We brought the audience upstairs in the second act to write the ending,” says Miller. “There were so many members of the community rolling around on the floor, picking up performers…”

Miller composed her characters for String of Pearls with “a lot of compassion,” she says. She slips into some, such as the lumbering, lovestruck mammoth named Cindy, by engaging their physicality; with others, from a French jewelry retailer to an argumentative architect from “Bah-stan,” it was engaging an accent. Her role as the cancer-stricken Linda is a feat of contemplative stillness in an occasionally manic play; it was also one of Miller’s biggest challenges, a woman envied by many who is rendered nearly mute due to her frail condition.

String of Pearls is a difficult play to stage; Miller tells CC that Lowe initially conceived the story as a screenplay then adapted it for the stage when no production companies snatched it up. (“We all discovered the flaws of the script,” says Miller. “There is a lot of narration.”) But each of Miller’s characters—patiently lived-in and immediately accessible—anchors the production and showcases her uncanny control as an actress.

And should you need greater incentive to see Pearls, the show will be Miller’s last performance in town (as well as the final show of the current LA season). In July, she heads to Chicago to pursue her career and to collaborate with a few other UVA Drama alums. Be sure to grab tickets!

String of Pearls runs in Live Arts’ UpStage theater through June 28; tickets are $12-14.

Keene you dig it?

CC made a killing at the second annual Steve Keene art swap at The Paramount Theater, where he exchanged a few of the former local’s, er, “hurried” paintings for an enormous depiction of the White Stripes and a Clash painting that he sold for $10. Reminder: Keene tends to favor Charlottesville zip codes and throws in a few extra paintings with each order from the area. If you want to wheel and deal with Curt, place an order then e-mail him; he has a few to trade. And set aside the first Friday in June next year for the swap!

Have any art news? E-mail First big tip that checks out gets a Steve Keene painting of Jane’s Addiction.