Freshness and style at the Mirror Rep: `Madwoman' and `Clarence'

The Mirror Repertory Company has opened its third season with a timeless Gallic fantasy and a genial piece of comic Americana. Jean Giraudoux's ``The Madwoman of Chaillot'' has been followed at the Theatre of St. Peter's Church by Booth Tarkington's ``Clarence.'' Both revivals are being acted with freshness, style, and spirit. The timelessness of ``The Madwoman of Chaillot'' begins with the fact that its satiric fable is securely rooted in place and period. The place is the Chaillot quarter of Paris. Giraudoux specified the time as ``a little before noon in the Spring of next year.'' That was written in 1944, the year before Louis Jouvet (playing the Ragpicker) premi`ered it in Paris and four years before the play reached Broadway.

Adding to the play's timelessness is the fact that ``the Spring of next year'' could be any next year in our troubled century. The values cherished by the Countess Aurelia, the very sensible Madwoman of Chaillot, spring from the ideals of decency, gentleness, affection, and the joys of the human spirit. Aurelia's enemies are the monsters of greed and exploitation. In Giraudoux's witty fairy tale, she is more than a faded and foolish romantic. She is a romantic who can rally her forces -- and win.

On her daily visit to the caf'e terrace of the Chez Francis, Aurelia overhears a clutch of nasty adventurers hatching a particularly nasty scheme. Giraudoux has a marvelous time satirizing the predatory point of view as the President (W. B. Brydon) explains the intricacies of corporate business (including the stock market) and the Prospector (Tom Brennan) describes how, with the necessary official concurrence, he can drill for oil under Paris itself. International Substrate of Paris Inc. is formed on the spot -- long before ``multinational corporations'' had become part of everyday coinage.

As Chaillot's Madwoman, Geraldine Page exults in the fancies and eccentricities of a Parisian grande dame whose vagaries conceal her astuteness. She is a fantastic with her head in the clouds and her feet planted firmly on the pavement of her beloved Paris. Her romanticism is her practicality. This refugee from the age of elegance is more than a match for 20th-century skulduggery and tycoonery.

Miss Page delights as much in Aurelia's recital of her daily regimen as in the call to action with which the madwoman rallies her forces. And in her memorable tea party, Aurelia's fellow madwomen are played with pixilated enthusiasm by Carrie Nye as the volatile Mme. Constance, Madeleine Sherwood as the superannuated but maidenly Mlle. Gabrielle, and Kim Beaty as the no-nonsense Mme. Josephine, the ideal magistrate to preside over the mock trial that deals out justice to the wicked.

``The Madwoman of Chaillot'' is rich in set pieces, and the Mirror Company actors deliver them with relish. Frank Hamilton's Ragpicker analyzes the implications of a society's garbage and proves a formidable stand-in for the predators when they are tried in absentia. Clement Fowler's Sewer Man cheerfully dispels and amplifies the myths surrounding his subterranean profession. Among the more conspicuous members of a huge and generally admirable cast are Sabra Jones as the unsullied Irma, Ivar Brogger as the would-be suicide whom her love transforms, and Jess Osuna as the Sergeant who recognizes a just cause when he sees it.

Director Stephen Porter has infused his players with the affectionate feeling of make-believe essential for ``The Madwoman of Chaillot'' to work its magic. Mr. Porter also has coped successfully with the logistical problems presented by the theater's small stage. So has scenery and lighting designer James Tilton, whose second-act setting for Aurelia's cellar features a nicely spooky doorway to oblivion for the miscreants. Gail Cooper-Hecht's costumes range from the Parisian mundane (which is never mundane) to the kinds of gorgeous creations that would delight a madwoman's heart. `Clarence'

``Clarence'' has come down in American theatrical history as the 1919 comedy hit that made a star of Alfred Lunt and presented Helen Hayes in one of the ``cute'' flapper roles that threatened to typecast her. A couple of generations later, Tarkington's romantic romp proves well worth revisiting in the Mirror Company's amiable production.

The hero of the title is a World War I Army dischargee in need of a job. With diffident doggedness, Clarence besieges the anteroom of Mr. Wheeler (Philip Pruneau), a New York financial biggie. Immediately exposed to all manner of family wrangles, the recent Army muleteer is hired as all-around handyman in the Wheelers' New Jersey mansion. The mysterious ex-soldier is soon displaying talents that range from plumbing and piano tuning to saxophone playing and family counseling. Tarkington withholds his hero's true identity as a doctor of entomology for the appropriate climax. Meanwhile, the author allows Clarence to fix his romantic sights on Violet Pinney (Sabra Jones), the Wheelers' good-looking governess.

Ivar Brogger plays Clarence with just the right mixture of literal-mindedness, deliberation, and mischievous solemnity. Uncle Sam's recent soldier boy charms the Wheeler household, most particularly the brattishly impressionable Cora (pretty Laura Galusha). He also becomes a role model for her scorned sibling (John David Cullum), a dropout before his time.

As a dizzy stepmother, Miss Page behaves with extravagance to match her first-act chapeau (one of costumer Arnold S. Levine's more dashing creations). Miss Jones is a Violet to beguile any susceptible Clarence. The company responds engagingly to Arthur Storch's frolicsome direction. James Tilton's scenery and lighting, plus the between-scene ditties from the 1920s pop album, help evoke the period atmosphere. ``Clarence'' is a delight.

The repertory company's subsequent productions this season will be Robert Bolt's ``Vivat! Vivat, Regina!'' and William Shakespeare's ``Richard II,'' directed by Ellis Rabb, who will also appear in the title role.

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