Ontario's Stratford Festival relocates `Troilus,' to little avail. Veteran actors help salvage production of the Bard's play

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In this season's Stratford Festival, the sole Shakespeare offering at the Avon Theatre has been ``Troilus and Cressida.'' The remaining repertoire includes Anton Chekhov's ``The Cherry Orchard,'' a play about Chekhov's marriage titled ``Intimate Admiration,'' and Ingmar Bergman's adaptation of Ibsen's ``A Doll's House'' titled ``Nora.'' Also, in keeping with the anti-war theme of this season's festival, there is an original play about World War I poets Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen, who met in a Scottish war hospital in 1917. `Troilus and Cressida'

Shakespeare's scalding antipathy to war had never been voiced in so sardonic a manner as in ``Troilus.'' Clearly, he was not telling a tale of the Trojan War at all, but rather serving up an allegory for his time - an allegory that has universal impact and meaning.

This ``Troilus,'' which runs through Oct. 30, is a failed production full of good intentions. Director David William has endeavored to give it a ``today'' tone by setting it in an Indian locale, substituting the British for the Greeks, and the Indians for the Trojans. The awkward yet domineering two-tiered set sports a version of what one presumes to be the Vietnam Memorial. The British/Greek soldiers watch TV and listen to boom boxes. Achilles walks around in ankle-length tailored bathrobes and wears sunglasses; Ulysses reads the London Times.

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Unfortunately, to these eyes the imagery does not sustain itself meaningfully. Because the British/Indian situation has no relevancy to today, the cutting edge of the play is instantly diluted. Mr. William has tried to keep an undercurrent of excessive combativeness, linked with sexual excess. He has seriously overplayed Achilles' homosexual relationship with Patroclus (the latter emerges, at one point, dressed as a cocktail waitress), without in any way giving us a sense of what really animates this hero, or planting the seeds of his cowardice that would allow us to savor fully the irony of his murdering the unarmed Hector.

The only scene with Helen of Troy (played by Tandy Cronyn) should be harrowing in its decadence and debauchery. Instead, we are treated to a ludicrous and pointless burlesque show of cross dressing - women in military uniforms, men in full drag.

Much of the casting was uneven, but at least the Stratford veterans were able to salvage aspects of the evening. Thus Nicholas Pennell's Ulysses was a masterly study in cynical manipulation and observation; Maurice Good added a suitably self-serving, blustery quality to Nestor; Mervyn Blake made King Priam a figure of unbearable world weariness; Stephen Russell deftly highlighted Achilles' arrogance and insensitivity.

But if anyone can be said to have shown how this production might have gone, it was Edward Atienza, whose scurrilous Thersites was a master stroke of acting and elocution. He made us forget the casting inequities; he made us forget the increasing ugliness of Debra Hanson's sets and costumes; he made us remember the genius of Shakespeare, when so many others seem to have been distracted by it.

Neville drops out of Epp play

Richard Epp's ``Intimate Admiration'' was to have run through Oct. 31, but artistic director John Neville, who was playing Chekhov, left Aug. 27 to do a movie in Rome and would not return until well after the Stratford season was ended. Therefore, the last nine performaces of the play have been canceled, and Joseph Ziegler (Aeneas in ``Troilus'') will be filling in for Mr. Neville in the few remaining performances.

Neville's Uncle Vanya-esque portrayal of Chekhov was delicately done - wistful, melancholic, gentle. It may not have coincided with one's expectations of a 41-year-old consumptive, but it was surely in keeping with Mr. Epp's fragile, even shallow, perusal of the Russian playwright's last four years, in which he met and married Olga Knipper.

To call ``Intimate Admiration'' lightweight is to understate the issue. Knipper, who clearly had in her the makings of a shrew, is painted in pastel hues. That Lucy Peacock is such a monochromatic and hard-edged actress perhaps gave this Olga more bite than Epp intended, but throughout this meager theatrical encounter, one could not help thinking of all this play should have been.

`Not About Heroes'

Much the same feeling emerged from ``Not About Heroes,'' Stephen MacDonald's drama about the friendship that developed between the two World War I poets Owen and Sassoon.

Mr. MacDonald spends so much time skirting around the issue of the nature of the relationship that he manages to sap the characters of real vitality. That the evening ends up being so touching - even devastating - is due almost entirely to the performers. Henry Czerny sustains Owen's boyish appeal, his enthusiasm for life, and his naive (and ultimately fatal) insistence that he must experience war to really understand it. Mr. Pennell's Sassoon manages to communicate great depth in his portrayal, and it is in what is not said, what is not acted upon, that we get an insight into what a deep and personal play this might have been.

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