Power, passion and a touch of witchcraft

March 19, 2000|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,Sun Theater Critic

A slight, impish Lady Macbeth? Not so outlandish with Pippa Pearthree in the role.

Nearly 20 years ago, when Pippa Pearthree was playing Ophelia in Joseph Papp's production of "Hamlet" at the New York Shakespeare Festival, the late great impresario told her: "The part for you is going to be Lady Macbeth."

Now Center Stage is giving her a chance to see if Papp was right. Beginning Friday, Pearthree will be the one urging Macbeth (played by Ritchie Coster) to "screw your courage to the sticking place."

Despite Papp's prediction, Pearthree, 43, is an actress who would never be typecast as Lady Macbeth. Small and slightly built, she is impish enough to have played the 13-year-old bellboy in the musical "Titanic" for a year on Broadway, beginning in 1998.

Sitting outside the Center Stage rehearsal hall on a recent morning, she admitted that when she was offered the part, "It took me several days to decide because I was just terrified. I looked at this script and thought, this is so difficult. 'Midsummer Night's Dream' it ain't. From the get-go she's ready to commit murder."

Lady Macbeth is Pearthree's fifth professional appearance in her hometown, where she began performing as a teen-ager in community theater and Friends School productions, often directed by her older brother, Todd. Baltimoreans saw Pearthree in her first paying role -- the female lead in the touring company of the Broadway musical, "The Magic Show" -- in 1975, when she was just 18.

Since then, she's appeared at Center Stage four times: in 1985, as a newlywed in Alan Ayckbourn's "Bedroom Farce"; in 1988 as Cecily in Oscar Wilde's "The Importance of Being Earnest"; in 1989 as Ariel in "The Tempest"; and in 1993 as the oldest sister, a bisexual lawyer-turned-kidnapper, in George F. Walker's dark comedy, "Escape from Happiness."

Tim Vasen, who is directing "Macbeth" at Center Stage, first saw her perform when "Escape from Happiness" moved to the Yale Repertory Theatre. "I remember that being just about the fiercest performance I'd ever seen -- this rather small person with this extraordinary amount of rage and humor and quickness," recalls Vasen, who was a student at the Yale School of Drama at the time. "That fierceness was what stuck in my head and seemed to me to be appropriate for Lady Macbeth."

"She's pretty forthright, I guess is the kindest way to put it," says her brother, Todd, who still directs at area theaters. Then, being more forthright himself, he adds with a laugh, "She can be a pain in the butt... This is where her forte is, these sorts of angry women."

For her part, Pearthree says, "People who know me best said, 'Oh, my God, this is perfect for you.' I can be fierce at times."

The actress says she didn't do much preparation for Lady Macbeth, explaining: "I don't think it's the lazy man's way out. It's relying on imagination and, in rehearsal, trying to put yourself in that life."

A woman of passion

She's quite open, however, to hearing what other actors and scholars have said about the role. She is especially struck by the comments of the late Judith Anderson, who played Lady Macbeth on stage in 1937 and on television in 1954. The character, Anderson once said, was "madly, passionately in love with her husband... She was obsessed with power, both for herself and for her husband. She was an extremely passionate woman."

"The sexual relationship for these two, particularly for Lady Macbeth, is very important," Pearthree agrees.

At the same time, hearing that critic Harold Bloom claims Lady Macbeth is as much Macbeth's mother as his wife, Pearthree responds, "I think that's true. Who knows where we'll end up? There are some moments right now where he's very needy for her, and when he starts to crumble, she's got to pick him up. Sometimes it's sexual. Sometimes it's maternal."

Then there's the theory held by some scholars that Lady Macbeth is the play's fourth witch and that she is uttering an incantation to the devil when she says: "Come, you spirits/That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here/And fill me from the crown to the toe top-full/Of direst cruelty!"

"That's how we're working on it, that that speech is some kind of taking on of the evil spirits," Pearthree says.

She rejects the notion, however, that the fatal flaw in the Macbeth household stems from a reversal in roles, from Lady Macbeth wearing the pants. "I don't think of it that way. I don't want to play her as this mustache-twirling [villain]. She certainly plants things in his ear, leads him on, but I choose to think of it more as a partnership... I think she adores him. She's passionate for him. It's not just her own selfish desires. It's the idea of the two of them."

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