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Stephen Markle makes Center Stage his temporary home

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Actor Stephen Markle calls himself "a migratory arts worker."

In other words, home is wherever he finds himself on stage or in front of a camera. And though the 46-year-old actor's credits range from Broadway to starring roles with the New York Shakespeare Festival to the daytime soaps, these days home is Center Stage.

However, while Markle may lack a permanent residence -- he recently bid farewell to Los Angeles after two years -- he has managed to inhabit several major theatrical roles on a repeat basis. One of these, the lead in Moliere's "The Misanthrope," is what brings him back to Center Stage, where the 17th century comedy begins performances Friday.

Center Stage's production will be the third time Markle has played Moliere's hypocrisy-hating comic hero, Alceste, a man who disdains the insincerity of society at the same time he finds himself hopelessly in love with a notorious flirt. The actor took his first stab at the part in 1985 at the Huntington Theatre Company in Boston; the second came four years later at California's Berkeley Repertory Theatre, under the direction of Irene Lewis, who subsequently became artistic director of Center Stage and is also directing the coming production.

Nor is this the first time he's reprised a role. He has played Hamlet twice and Macbeth twice. And in 1987, when he appeared in Center Stage's production of Chekov's "Uncle Vanya," it was the third time he had portrayed cynical Dr. Astrov within a little more than a year.

A trained classical guitarist, Markle compares returning to the same role to the process a musician goes through when he resurrects a great work from his repertory. "The first time is like learning the score," the expressive actor explains while working his way through a pack of Marlboro Lights in the theater's upstairs lounge. "Once you have the score under your belt, you can start making some choices. The third time, you start digging down."

His director agrees. The production "has deepened," says Lewis, who has imported the design team as well as two other actors from the Berkeley production. Lewis, who also directed Markle in Center Stage's "Uncle Vanya," clearly enjoys working with him. "We have a shorthand in the rehearsal hall," she says. "We have similar temperaments -- high-strung, we'll try anything."

According to Markle, another reason for their "symbiotic relationship," as he describes it, is that "We have a handle on making this stuff accessible." In the case of "The Misanthrope," much of that accessibility depends on making the audience feel comfortable with the verse, which translator Richard Wilbur has transformed from 14-syllable French Alexandrines into iambic pentameter.

The ease with which Markle approaches the poetry may partly be due to his musical background, which crops up again when he explains, "The best thing you can do for the audience is not hit the rhyme, not sing-song it. If you have the chops, you can then take the verse and jive with it so people can relax. They can really hear what's being said."

But Markle's desire to keep returning to Alceste -- and Lewis' desire to direct him in the role -- is due to more than a facility for poetry. "I think he understands what makes that character tick," Lewis says. "The character is clearly a combination of tragic and comic."

The actor demonstrated a similar insight earlier this season at Center Stage when he uncovered a layer of empathy in the role of Krogstad, the blackmailer in Ibsen's "A Doll House." "If you decide in advance that these men are bad, wrong or mean-spirited, you can't play them," he explains, adding that he has a special fondness for portraying villains.

Besides Krogstad and, of course, Macbeth, his credits include several unsavory characters of a less literary bent. He made his motion picture debut as a cult leader in the 1981 film "Ticket to Heaven," and soap opera fans may remember him in the running role of sociopathic Lt. Loomis in "The Edge of Night" in the early 1980s. Markle says Lt. Loomis was originally intended to appear for only four or five weeks, but he apparently made a compelling bad guy since, as he puts it, "I stayed on and kept killing people."

Currently, the writers of ABC's "One Life to Live" are creating a special scoundrel, specifically with him in mind. "It's more fun than a barrel of monkeys to go in with a brand new villain," exclaims Markle, who had his first taste of "One Life" earlier this year when he shot a few episodes as a considerably more benign character, a court psychiatrist called Dr. Nicholson.

As his enthusiasm for the soaps suggests, Markle is hardly a theater snob, despite his classical background. "It's all the same stuff really," he insists. At the same time, he doesn't deny that his training at the National Theatre School of Canada, plus several years with the Canadian Stratford Festival, have served him well -- even in the most mundane vehicles. For example, when he shot "Invasion U.S.A." (1985), he recalls with a laugh, "Chuck Norris said, 'You're the only guy who's speaking English in this movie.' "

Markle initially wanted to be a writer, not an actor, and his interest in a behind-the-scenes career may well have been sparked by his father, Fletcher Markle, a writer, director and producer for radio, television and film, who died last year. Stephen, who was born in Scotland, had an upbringing almost as migratory as his adult life has turned out to be, growing up in cities including London, New York and Toronto, and graduating from high school in Arizona. After his mother died in 1958, he was raised by his father and step-mother, actress Mercedes McCambridge.

One experience he especially cherishes was acting on a series of original radio dramas his father directed for the "Sears Radio Theater" and the "Mutual Radio Theater" in 1979 and 1980. "He was very good. He ran a radio empire for years and people loved him, and apart from being his son, God knows, I could see where that was coming from," the younger Markle says.

Nor has he forsaken his interest in writing. Together with writing partner and fellow actor Saul Rubinek, he is working on a screenplay about the theater. After "The Misanthrope" concludes its one-month run at Center Stage, he'll return to the screenplay. And, depending on how the coming TV season shapes up, he may also find himself shooting some new episodes of the prime-time series, "Civil Wars," on which he has a continuing role as an attorney named Gavin Reichert.

Then, of course, there's the spanking new villain on "One Life to Live." If that works out, Markle is considering giving up the life of the migratory arts worker. But he has no intention of settling in New York, where the soap opera is shot. "I'll live around here -- the Chesapeake Bay," he says. "I love it here."

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