London, Ontario — Repertory theater in its strict definition - a resident company performing a series of plays throughout a year - is increasingly hard to find on this continent.
Robin Phillips, former director of the Stratford (Ontario) Festival, has begun just such a new repertory theater in this quiet, park-laden city directly across Lake Erie from Cleveland. The Grand Theatre Company takes its name from the theater in which it performs - a turn-of-the-century edifice totally renovated and rebuilt recently. A contemporary lobby space is wedded to a handsome auditorium and glorious proscenium arch, with an extensive new backstage area.
Mr. Phillips established his credentials as an exceptional director in Stratford. His first season here in London has ranged from ''Godspell'' to ''Timon of Athens,'' from ''Hamlet'' to ''Arsenic and Old Lace.'' All shows unfold within a large permanent plexiglass outer set that is now visible, now invisible, usually evocative, and occasionally an integral part of the production at hand, depending on design demands.
In the smaller McManus Theatre, a season of Paul Gallico stories includes ''The Snow Goose,'' ''Thomasina,'' ''The Miracle in the Wilderness,'' ''Ludmilla ,'' and ''The Small Miracle.'' The company is also chartered to explore film and TV work, thus giving the troupe a multifaceted profile.
The ensemble consists of much of the finest talent Canada has to offer, with Tony-award winning actress Carole Shelley thrown in for good measure. Anyone who has attended Stratford regularly will recognize such names as Martha Henry, William Hutt, Leo Leyden, William Webster, Barry MacGregor. Actors such as Brent Carver and David Dunbar are among an entire stratum of younger performers who are emerging, and who hold their own surprisingly well in the company of illustrious veterans.
I caught up with seven shows during my London stay. The unquestionable marvel was Phillips's production of Shakespeare's ''Timon of Athens.'' This problem play has baffled even Shakespeare scholars, who all agree that while the Bard never finished the play, what is good about it is very good indeed.
Timon is a man of extremes. He manifests the gullibility that only a preening vanity can bestow on a well-meaning mortal. When his fortunes are wasted on lavish parties and equally lavish gifts, he turns to his so-called friends, who fork over not a sou. Timon then becomes a scathing misanthrope and runs to the hills to escape the world and die.
Phillips forsook Greek togas and Hellenic vistas for the Edwardian era's self-indulgent pomp, preening vanity, and chilly monolithic elegance. Daphne Dare's set relied on a magnificent marblelike floor, which instantly set the tone - cold, formal, remote - that allowed this curious tale of munificence and revenge to unfold.
The banquet scenes were brilliantly executed - particularly when Timon turns on his ''friends,'' serving them water and then throwing it in their ungrateful faces. Timon's cave was a Beckettian landscape, a desert of canvas. It provided a startling visual parallel to the protagonist's intense bitterness and his very contemporary fulminations against the evils of money and the ingratitude of the human animal. In fact, everything about this production was touched with the sort of brilliant insight that served the playwright rather than merely calling attention to the director.
William Hutt's Timon slid from gentle graciousness to towering misanthropy with stunning ease, inflecting his speeches with force and grandeur. William Webster was the touching Flavius, Timon's loyal steward. The large cast performed admirably throughout.
The holiday season was ushered in with an uproarious ''Prisoner of Zenda,'' which holds the stage delightfully in Warren Graves's adaptation. This is entertainment, with some solid moral values thrown in as well, and everyone involved is deeply committed to making it grab an audience and keep it on the edge of its seats.
Canadian playwright John Murrell's haunting ''Waiting for the Parade'' has not only been staged but filmedin a special adaptation for Canadian televsion. This engrossing study focuses on five Calgary women during World War II and how the war affects their lives.
Shaw has also been on hand at the Grand. A delectable production of ''The Doctor's Dilemma'' featured Messrs. Hutt, Carver, Leyden, MacGregor, and Gary Reinicke as Sir Colenso Ridgeon, Miss Henry as Jennifer Dubedat.
''The Club'' is a feminist diversion set in an exclusive gentleman's club, 1903, with one hitch: The all-male cast is played by women, which sets up an eerie sort of new reality. By show's end, one actually begins to believe that these characters might be men, so when Miss Shelley removes her wig and makeup, one is brilliantly disoriented. Phillips is so fine at coaxing utterly natural, believable performances from his cast that the balance of the show remains unsettlingly believable (even during some lapses of taste from playwright Eve Merriam), be the actress Miss Henry, Miss Goodhand, Miss Shelley, Miss Wright, or whoever.
An evening with ''Thomasina,'' a most unusual cat, proved at its best charming, if rather too long - especially for the younger audiences for whom the show is geared. The cast is culled from the younger performers. Barbara Budd plays a delectable Thomasina, who also appears as a chillingly realistic puppet.
Here is the remarkable aspect of this troupe - how effortlessly it slips from the depths of ''Timon'' to the enchanting silliness of ''Zenda.'' Credit the theatrical genius of Robin Phillips. His superb technical staff, from design to lighting, gives him just the sort of look he demands for a given show. His actors are exceptional. The entire company exudes consummate craftsmanship in an era when such values are fast waning.