NEW YORK — If one were to judge a young actress’ chances for success based on stage or screen time, things wouldn’t necessarily bode well for Kristen Bush, who stars opposite Kevin Kline in The Public Theater’s “King Lear,” opening Wednesday. Though she plays Cordelia, one of Shakespeare’s best-known female roles, her appearances are limited to the first and last acts of the more than three-hour-long production.

“It’s an interesting kind of dilemma in that, for being such a famous part, she does not have a lot to her,” says the fresh-faced Bush. “She makes a huge journey…she really grows up and realizes the gravity of what she’s kind of set in motion, but all of that has to be discovered while I’m in my dressing room.”

All the more reason, then, to commend the 27-year-old actress’ performance as Lear’s youngest daughter, whose dramatic arc takes her from ingenue to regal defender of her father against her corrupt sisters. “I’m struck with how like her father she is: very headstrong, very obstinate and proud…those aren’t necessarily innocuous qualities and not something you think of when you initially think of the wilting flower she might be portrayed as,” explains Bush of her interpretation of Cordelia. “Certainly, those are traits I can identify with.”

And Shakespeare is a medium in which the young actress is quite comfortable. Bush has been performing in theater since she was 11, when her parents forced her to audition for a play at the Sterling College Theater across the street from her house in the Kansas town of the same name. She was instantly smitten and went on to study drama in college and pick up a master’s at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London, where she was trained in classical techniques. Since then, she has understudied as both Rosalind and Phoebe in “As You Like It” in the 2005 Shakespeare in the Park production.

But Bush is not one to shy away from the more contemporary demands of TV and film parts. In the fall, she guest-starred on the season premiere of “Law & Order: SVU,” in a role that required her to shave her head.

This story first appeared in the March 6, 2007 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

“I think they were really hoping for someone who would go all the way, and my agent submitted me saying that I’d be happy to do it,” she laughs, before adding, “She was a victim turned perpetrator, and her rapist shaved her head because she was an informant….It was a kind of tenuous connection as to why she was shaved. I probably should have investigated it more, but whatever.”

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