From Stratford: variety and virtuosity -- most of the time

The opening weeks at Stratford have had quite a share of memorable moments: "Virginia." Brian Bedford and Maggie Smith sparring so effortlessly, so brightly , in "Much Ado." Robin Phillips's gloriously moody and subtle "Twelfth Night."

These large productions happen on the Festival Stage, a half-circle, amphitheater-like building with superb acoutics which seats 2,262 people. But the Stratford festival uses two other stages: There is also the Avon Theater and the Third Stage.

The Avon is a refurbished proscenium theater which seats 1,102. The Stage usually is used later on in the season and is considerably more casual a space, and also the most versatile of the three stages.

The first four Shakespeare plays of the season have been on the Festival Stage. Though Chekhov's "The Seagull" will also be on that stage later, all the remaining non-Shakespearean offering will be at the Avon (except for John Aubrey's "Brief Lives"). The Festival space is surprisingly intimate, given its size, partly because of the proscenium, partly because the dark walls afford no distraction at all, partly because it just that much smaller a space.

When the play on hand is D.L. Coburn's "The gin Game," that immediacy is especially welcome. for the play itself -- as evident when seen even with Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy on Broadway -- is of no tremendous consequence, and if one does not get to know the people as meticulously fleshed out by the two actors, the show has little value.

At the Avon, Kate Reid and Douglas Rain played Fonsia Dorsey and Weller Martin. Both are expert actors, both know their way around a stage, both know how to take a small moment and make it stand out in relief. Both play these characters for reality, for simplicity, for believability and vulnerability. But as directed with great understatement by Mel Shapiro, they miss the devastation that of the finale.

Fonsia and Weller are in a nursing home, and over games of gin, which she consistently wins, they get to know each other, and let the audience know about them (including their penchant for nasty language).

When Weller has his final verbal eruption, one should be left limp and stunned, rather than just actively concerned. But active concern is all that can really be mustered here, because Coburn has not really written a play that sells itself. Had Mr. Shapiro allowed his stars more emphatic a turn, the impact would have been more shattering. 'Virginia'

No such problem with Edna O'Brien's "Virginia." All the big guns are out in this one -- Robin Phillips, Maggie Smith, Patricia Conolly, Nicholas Pennell -- and expectations are not for an instant let down.

Of late, the theater has been robbing real people for its source and inspiration. Often, a failing playwright tackles a famous person (or couple), put into a fictionalized framework that incorporates his own neuroses and hangups. The theater has also been going in for one-actor plays that are psychological studies of some insight and some value, but do not really work as plays or satisfy as vehicles.

Edna O'Brien succeeds because she is such a gifted writer, and because her control of words is consummate. In a sentence, she can distill what others need pages to achieve. "Virginia" is not very long and given that "Virginia" is none other than Virginia Woolfe, that seems less than encouraging. Also, "Virginia" is a three-character play, but it is really closer to a monodrama with important asides. Arguably these asides are not necessary, but so much would otherwise be lost, particularly given Miss O'Brien's remarkable austerity of verbiage, and the force each word carries.

"Virginia" is, in the vernacular, "strong stuff." It requires great powers of intensive listening and concentration to absorb it to its fullest. Miss O'Brien has tapped letters, diaries, and other pertinent matter involving Virginia Woolfe, husband Leonard and friend-then-lover Vita Sakville-West. The bulk of the evening lies on Virginia's frail, gaunt shoulders, as she recounts her childhood, her early adulthood, her incipient madness that emerges only after she has married Leonard, her affair with Vita, World War II, and her final slip toward the madness that she avoided only by drowning herself.

Throughout, it is not the Virginia of letters we get, but the essential bundle of paradoxes who produced memorable works and went mad so memorably, and who consumed Leonard's life. And we get it in the leanest, yet most evocative manner.

In Maggie Smith's virtuoso performance, it is fully visualized on stage. So extraordinary is this actress's ability to metamorphose right in front of one's eyes, that she ages, withdraws, and finally wilts with disturbing versimilitude. How wonderful that this sort of magic happens at a Stratford, which seems to nurture just the right theatrical environment to sustain.

Patricia Conolly, who just a few hours earlier had been the beguiling, warm, radiant Viola/Cesario in "Twelfth Night," here becomes the cold, self-assured, forcefuly visaged Vita -- a particularly tough assignment since the role is so short and so much must be established in the merest flash of time. Nicholas Pennell is also extraordinary as the shake-ridden Leonard -- calm, paternal, warm, dedicated, devoted husband and artistic encourager. They add immeasurably to the richness of the show.

Each new encounter with Robin Phillips's work makes one aware of just what a gift his really is. From the hustlebustle of a "Much Ado About Nothing" he can create such vivid, memorable small images, and guide each subtlety of detail and of gesture to a meaningful conclusion. And so he does in "Virginia." On Phillip Silver's transparent panel set, with Michael J. Whitfield's masterful lighting, the imagery is spellbinding, etching itself into one's subconscious (with such deft use of soundtrack, including that haunting running brook).

Some may draw back at the verbally somewhat explicit treatment of Virginia and Vita's relationship, but it is delivered as fact, as a key to Virginia Woolfe. 'Beggar's Opera'

Another facet of the busy Phillips's abilities could be seen in his ebullient mounting of John Gay's "The Beggar's Opera" (co-directed by Gregory Peterson). It has been updated a bit, and anachronisms of political reference and musical material pop up here and there. Berthold Carriers has recast some of the harmonic and choral content to give the work a fresh vitality.

It may not be entirely true to Gay in fact, though in spirit one could hardly think he'd mind. and it is a delectable romp from beginning to end. Part of the production's purpose is to showcase the Stratford Youth Choir, and so it does. The chorus stays on stage virtually the entire three acts, commenting, reacting, and singing opulently. It is very well cast, for the most part. Edda Gaborek is a pert gamine of a Polly Peachum, Alicia Jeffrey a wonderfully sultry Lucy Locki. Graeme Campbell and Patrick Christopher turn in masterful performances as Peachum and Lockit, as does Mary Savidge as Diana Trapes.

David Dunbar's filch is as ingratiating as he always is -- be it at the Avon or at the Festival. It ia too bad that Jim McQueen performance lacks strenght as MacHeath -- a grandly heroic rogue for whom one needs some swash, much buckle , and generous barrelsful of charisma.

Daphne Dare's set often disappears with all the people on it, yet when one does glimpse it now and then, it always gives just the right texture and feel; her work is so fine, fits so closely in with Phillips's views of the piece. Another outstanding festival creator is lighting designer Michael J. Whitfield. No matter how dark a moment is supposed to be, he never obscures faces. A dark spot on a Whitfield stage simply does not exist. Would that the same could be said for other lighting designers in important places today.

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