Lively young Acting Company: boon to actors and audiences

The Acting Company is nearing the conclusion of its 10th season. The company performs at Stratford, Conn., until May 14, with a one-day visit to Bayside, N.Y., on May 8. Engagements in Radford, Va., (May 16) and Nashville, Tenn., (May 18-23) wind up the season.

In the course of a brief stopover at the Off Broadway American Place theater, the lively young troupe appeared in Shakespeare's ''Twelfth Night,'' directed by Michael Langham, and William Wycherly's ''The Country Wife,'' staged by Garland Wright. I was able to attend the latter comedy, of which more later.

Meanwhile, the company itself deserves a celebratory salute on its anniversary. To achieve a 10-year landmark is uncommon enough in the highly uncertain and unpredictable world of the stage. The performance troupe was founded in 1972 by John Houseman and Margot Harley with a talented ensemble of Juilliard graduates. It has managed over the course of these years--drawing from several training institutions--to recruit a sufficient cadre of young players to preserve a reasonably consistent standard.

Graduates from the earlier companies have established their independent careers and, in several cases, made their marks in the world of commercial entertainment. They include Kevin Kline, Broadway's erstwhile ''Pirate King''; Patti LuPone, formerly of ''Evita''; and David Ogden Stiers of TV's ''M*A*S*H.''

The Acting Company describes itself as ''the only permanent professional theater company in America founded for and dedicated to the development of American actors.'' Its second commitment is to tour professional repertory productions of classical and contemporary plays throughout the United States. To date, the 17-member company has traveled over 225,000 miles, performing a repertory of 45 plays in 210 cities in 41 states before more than a million people. It has also visited Australia. In 1980 the Acting Company was named the ''touring arm'' of the Kennedy Center in Washington.

The repertoire has ranged from Shakespeare, Sheridan, and Shaw to Tennessee Williams and Michael Weller. The directors have chosen from the masterworks of Russian, French, German, Italian, and Irish drama. Along with the classics, there have been little known works and novelties. The overall results have been enriching both for the players and their audiences.

Of the 1981-82 offerings, ''The Country Wife'' provided only an approximation of a complex and difficult Restoration comedy. The cast gave reassuring evidence of the strict disciplines of speech and general technique which have been a hallmark of Acting Company performance. Even the comic accents were well handled--principally by Lynn Chausow as Margery Pinchwife, the cunning rustic innocent, and Becky Borczon as Lucy, the indispensably saucy maid-of-all-work. As Mr. Horner, the seducer who proclaims his impotency to deceive suspicious husbands, Casey Biggs presented an eloquent and sardonic rake--Shaw's Don Juan without the moral passion.

The problem with the revival appeared to stem mainly from Mr. Wright's heavy-handed directorial approach. As if Wycherly's satire on hypocrisy and infidelity were not stated with sufficient sharpness of wit and clarity, Mr. Wright insisted on a kind of overblown exaggeration. The results owed more to energy and ornate vulgarity than to style. In keeping with the director's approach, the macabre setting by Jack Barkla resembled a gaudy mausoleum, tiled in black Plexiglas and ornamented with a skull. Judith Dolan's 17th-century costumes were designed to be worn with a flourish; the cast responded enthusiastically.

Though the production proved disappointing, the Acting Company fortunately lives to fight another day and present another season. After a brief layoff, the troupe with preview Moliere's ''Tartuffe'' in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., (Aug. 13-14). Next season's touring begins on Aug. 17 at Chautauqua, N.Y., with ''The Country Wife,'' ''Twelfth Night,'' and ''Tartuffe.'' The former two will subsequently be replaced by Shakespeare's ''The Winter's Tale'' plus ''Krapp's Last Tape'' and ''Play,'' by Samuel Beckett.

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