Needed at today's Stratford Festival: vision and excitement

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The Festival Theatre has been the centerpiece of the Stratford Festival since it replaced the tent in 1957. With its large seating capacity, ample arena stage, and excellent acoustics, it has usually been given over to the less intimate of the season's repertoire. These days, the Festival Theater is home to an annual audience-luring musical (this year it was ``Cabaret''), as well as to the expected Shakespeare and other playwrights. Unfortunately, only one of the Festival Theatre productions I saw could be called a Stratford showcase - Sheridan's ``The School for Scandel.'' In fact, on the basis of the nine productions seen at Stratford during this 35th-anniversary season, it seems that what is most lacking is a vision.

It is not that as an artistic director John Neville has been without impact: He has been able to quickly heal the deep divisiveness left by the ruinous John Hirsh years, and it is good news that he has agreed to extend his contract through 1989.

Now the task is to bring back to Stratford the sort of theatrical excitement that was, once again, in low supply this year. We should grow and stretch at a Stratford event. Even if the production ultimately fails, it should do so provocatively.

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The choice of plays also needs some serious attention. Too many lightweight offerings along the lines of ``Intimate Admiration'' and ``Not About Heroes'' throw off the overall balance of what should be a substantial theatrical season, no matter how well acted the plays are.

`Othello'

At the Festival Theatre, the Neville-directed production of Shakespeare's ``Othello'' promised much, because the gifted young American black actor Howard Rollins was trying the title role for the first time. The evening was saddled with a major flaw: designer Astrid Janson's unusually unattractive sets and costumes.

The flooring was a huge plastic tarpaulin that resembled a shower curtain; the opening Venice scenes seemed inspired by a lurid Las Vegas motel lobby; Cyprus was filled with all sorts of odds and ends that appeared to have been borrowed from a Hollywood science-fiction prop room. No one fitted into the vaguely Victorian era costumes properly, especially Othello (who looked like Ethiopia's late ruler Haile Selassie) and Desdemona, who simply looked misshapen.

Director Neville evinced no clear sense of what this play was about, and he was quite unable to help Mr. Rollins find a way to be comfortable in Shakespearean declamation. The actor's lack of ease - some stunningly insightful moments notwithstanding - caused the shaky production to founder early on. Rollins got no support from his Desdemona, Wenna Shaw, who made this embodiment of purity and youthful innocence seem, paradoxically, a remote and aloof worldly matron.

Colm Feore was asked to play Iago rather like a drawing-room comedy party crasher - debonair, witty, malicious - and he played it well, but in something of a vacuum. Scott Wentworth's Roderigo, Douglas Campbell's Brabantio, Goldie Semple's Emilia, and Keith Dinicol's Montano all managed to shore up a leaky vessel. One emerged from this ``Othello'' with a sense of a missed opportunity, theatrically and aesthetically.

`Much Ado About Nothing'

``Much Ado'' may not have been challenging, but it offered pleasurable and solid performances. Director Peter Moss was satisfied to let Beatrice (Tandy Cronyn) and Benedict's (Richard Monette) verbal parrying set the tone of the play, and to allow William Hutt (Leonato) to take care of any of the serious overtones. At least Mr. Moss had a viewpoint. On Christina Poddubiuk's graceful Edwardian conservatory set (which failed only in the church scene to set the correct mood) and with Louis Applebaum's handsome costumes, it was always a visual treat.

Mr. Hutt effortlessly dominated the production with fatherly dignity and warmth. Edward Atienza's appropriately formal, mannered Don Pedro was another plus, as was Sheila McCarthy's Margaret. And as the two word-duelists who eventually fall in love, Miss Cronyn and Mr. Monette handled themselves with charm, poise, and grace. `The School for Scandal'

Unfortunately, the highlight of the festival season has now closed - Robin Phillips's staging of ``The School for Scandal.'' What made it so special was the decision to banish any hint of the traditional broad-farce acting style. Sheridan's archetypes were transformed into real people, in real situations, which made the repercussions of all their malicious gossip-mongering all the more horrible. The laughs were more painful because they were elicited from human characters rather than overwrought caricatures.

Hutt's Sir Peter Teazle was a marvel of understatement, particularly opposite Mr. Campbell's flamboyant Sir Oliver Surface; Miss McCarthy's Lady Teazle was a mischievous mixture of innocence and worldliness; Mr. Feore's Joseph Surface was the essence of stylish mendacity; Miss Shaw, so uncomfortable as Desdemona, made an excellent Lady Sneerwell; Susan Wright's compulsively gossipy Mrs. Candour and Richard Curnock's slippery Mr. Crabtree were superb vignettes. The only real weak link was the Maria: Anna Louise Richardson's innate blandness of declamation and impassiveness of facial expression were as much liabilities here as they were with her Hero in ``Much Ado.''

In any Phillips production, the set is as much a part of the total effect as the acting and direction. Michael Eagan's white-floored stage was dominated by a movable tower, which helped define each set change. Ann Curtis's costumes were studies in what costuming should be.

As with last season's ``Cymbeline,'' Phillips shows how high one can reach at Stratford and succeed. Stratford at its best has earned its reputation as the leading theatrical stage in North America by serving up a rich and varied menu of stimulating theater.

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