Now rooted in Seattle, Peter Crook keeps growing as an actor

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Peter Crook tried to do the expected thing to thrive as a professional actor.

After graduate acting studies at the prestigious Juilliard School, he spent a decade in New York trolling for stage work. Later he did a spell in Los Angeles, landing film and TV gigs.

But something kept drawing Crook back to Seattle. And now, as this versatile 44-year-old thespian tackles the lead in "Richard II" for the Seattle Shakespeare Company, it is as a respected, rooted member of the local acting community.

Crook recalls with pleasure the first time he hit town in 1989, as a New York actor jobbed in to perform in two Seattle Repertory Theatre shows ("Nothing Sacred" and "Les Liaisons Dangereuses").

"I remember getting off the plane, driving to Queen Anne, rolling down the window, and asking, 'What is that smell?' It was fresh air, trees, a bit of rain. Suddenly I felt like I was coming home."

It would take a while, though, before Crook pulled up stakes and moved here. The next lure was an invitation in 1994 from Intiman Theatre artistic head Warner Shook to play the role of Joe, a sexually conflicted Mormon man in Tony Kushner's two-part epic, "Angels in America."

"I jumped at the chance," says Crook. "I felt like Tony had read my diaries and written the play. And when I came back, I fell in love with the city again, with the artistic community. And I found my life mate."

Crook returned to Los Angeles, where he was residing, but soon moved north. That was in 1996, and he's been here ever since, working almost nonstop at the city's leading theaters in a range of roles. He relishes the variety.

"There are things I've done that even my mother, who comes up from Texas to see me, hasn't recognized me in," confides the actor, who began losing his hair in his mid-20s and is now naturally bald in some shows, bewigged in others. "She didn't recognize me in 'The Beard of Avon' at the Rep for the first half-hour!

"I love that I can do so many different things here, at a lot of different theaters. There's a freedom here to explore, to even fail, that I don't find anywhere else."

Crook counts among his major acting challenges stripping to the buff for an "Angels in America" scene and appearing in Book-It Repertory Theatre's "Silver Water," a show based on Amy Bloom stories.

"We knew we had interesting, provocative, really touching material there," he says of "Silver Water," but "it only came together with a very collaborative effort."

Now Crook is focusing his polished classical skills on Shakespeare's Richard II, who loses his throne due to hubris and political errors — yet gains, in the end, a poetic awareness of what lies beyond the pomp and circumstance of his aristocratic role.

"You think, gosh, everybody's going to want to see John Gielgud's version of this part," Crook reflects. "But I'm doing my own version. What I responded to initially, when I first read some of the speeches at 15, was the idea of a king who wants to be somebody else, who's stuck in a role he doesn't like."

Staged by artistic director Stephanie Shine, Seattle Shakespeare's mounting will be "quite simple, emphasizing the words and Richard's journey. All the other versions I've seen recreated the 14th-century pageantry, the excess and fanfare. But Stephanie has allowed us to explore this as a story about family — about brothers, cousins, mothers."

Once the "Richard II" run ends, Crook heads right into his next acting job: appearing in Shakespeare's "Titus Andronicus," the season-opener at Intiman.

And his goal? To just keep working onstage.

"Unlike any other place I've been, Seattle is like one big repertory theater," marvels Crook. Clearly, he is now a valued part of the company.

Misha Berson:

"Richard II"

Opens Thursday, and runs Thursday-Sunday, through March 17, Shakespeare Company, Center House Theatre, Seattle Center; $10-$24, 206-325-6500.