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Steve Pickering: A glutton for tragedy at Shakespeare Theatre

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Entertainment,Theater,Emily Cary

Steve Pickering is that rare journeyman actor who never lacks for work, thanks to his versatility and skill. For more than two decades, he has been a hands-on member of Chicago's theater community, performing, designing, adapting and directing major productions at the Goodman Theatre and other venues. Along with a Joseph Jefferson Award and nominations and being named Actor of the Year by Chicago magazine, he performed with Brian Dennehy in the Tony Award-winning Goodman production of "Death of a Salesman" on Broadway, in the national tour, on Showtime and in London.

He last appeared with the Shakespeare Theatre Company in the 2009 production of "King Lear." Now he returns in two meaty roles, the title role in "Wallenstein" and Cominius in Shakespeare's "Coriolanus." The Hero/Traitor repertory bill deals with military leaders, the challenges they face and the price of power.

Michael Kahn, now celebrating his 25th year as STC artistic director, directs "Wallenstein." Originally a trilogy by German author Friedrich Schiller, the story was translated and adapted for the stage by former American Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky. David Muse, artistic director of the Studio Theatre, directs the Shakespearean epic "Coriolanus," starring STC veteran Patrick Page in the title role.

Onstage
'Coriolanus' and 'Wallenstein'
» Where: Sidney Harmon Hall, 610 F St. NW
» When: Thursday through June 2
» Info: $43 to $105; 202-547-1122; shakespearetheatre.org

" 'Coriolanus' is so timely and the best political play for this time in history," Pickering said. "I play his friend, Cominius, who tries to keep him balanced. Pinsky made 'Wallenstein' more timely than the original to fit into what is going on today. Each man is a hero to some and a traitor to others. It's all in the eye of the beholder. The soldier who saves the life of an opponent is a hero to this enemies and a traitor to his own people. And of course the theme of taxing nobles is very well-suited to today's politics.

"When Wallenstein gets to a certain point in his life, he discovers the freedom to work as a free agent. He is sick of killing and is trying to bring peace. The towns were set on fire, like Dresden during World War II, and the Thirty Years' War kept spilling over into what is now Germany and Eastern Europe. To him, it's as if a train is going by and he can see the cars slowing down. He sees what the war is doing to the common people and begins to get a sense of his own destiny from the top of his hill. He felt it was time to change things by making a bargain with the Swedes.

"When I was originally reading Wallenstein's speech that includes the line 'Because I toyed with the idea of treason, must I be driven to real treason,' it reminded me of George C. Scott in 'Patton.' The studio did not want to produce the film because of his connection with reincarnation. Both Patton and MacArthur had extraordinary egos and believed they had been in combat in former lives. Each had a worldview that he could see from the top of his own hill, and both got into trouble for their beliefs. Like them, Wallenstein questions himself. He wants to know whether he is doing good or bad, if he will forfeit his destiny, what it will cost and how it will affect him in history."

Long before he reached Washington, Pickering immersed himself in the Thirty Years' War to get a sense of what Wallenstein was going through. Once rehearsals began, he ordered more books to make the emotional connections.

"I'm a splatter actor," he said, laughing. "I throw everything at the wall and see what comes out. I landed in Chicago in 1984 when, if you stood up in a room, raised your hand and said, 'I can do it,' someone would let you do it. It was like rolling under a garage door. I was fortunate to be able to make a living there and have the advantage of being at Goodman when 50 or 60 of us formed a rotating company. I went from show to show with extraordinary people and became involved in directing, adapting literary works and designing.

"As I grow old, squatty and bald, I fit well into roles like these. I enjoy repertory for the change and working with two distinct directors like Michael and David, who run things their own way, and with Patrick, a lovely person whom I had never met. He strips right through Coriolanus like splitting rails with a wedge."

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