A good deal of the Stratford Festival's avowed purpose is to train young actors in the rudiments of classic Shakespearean theater performance style. This educational function is at its most intense with the Young Company at the Third Stage, a three-quarter-thrust arena playing space and concept that Robin Phillips developed when he was artistic director of the festival (through '80).
This year he is director of the Young Company, maintaining the standard set in his dazzling staging of Shakespeare's ``Cymbeline'' on the Festival stage last summer. For his 14 hand-picked actors, Mr. Phillips has chosen three plays - Shakespeare's ``As You Like It'' and ``Romeo and Juliet,'' and R.C. Sherriff's World War I drama, ``Journey's End.''
These three productions show off the company's versatility. The young ones mix with seasoned Stratford veterans like William Webster and Mervyn Blake, as well as the likes of Nancy Palk and Peter Donaldson, who make their every moment on stage something unique. The fledglings have a chance to feel what the Stratford experience is really all about. These actors are receiving intensive training under the guidance of an exceptional director/teacher. The audience's awareness of this adds to the impact of what has made this Young Company such a remarkable theatrical encounter.
Phillips understands the deepest motivations of a Shakespearean play and has that rare gift for making those motivations clear and for sorting out all the twists and turns of plot with the utmost clarity and simplicity. ``As You Like It'' made a particularly impressive sample of what can be achieved with a mostly young but gifted cast and a director who has an unerringly clear vision of the play and the manner in which to get his actors to understand and communicate that vision.
This ``As You Like It'' is every bit as memorable as if it had been cast with the finest actors. The playing space for all three productions, credited to Patrick Clark, is a long, somewhat narrow bleached pine runway, backed by a wall in the same wood. In the middle, a carpeted platform that centers, but does not always contain, the action.
We never forget that this is the Young Company, which I hope implies impulsiveness, enthusiasm, energy, but no lack of discipline. For this group is indeed disciplined. They speak their lines with feeling, and meaning, simplicity, and clarity. As it should be, the cast was dominated by Miss Palk (Rosalind), a tall, lithe actress gifted with a strong stage presence.
Higel Hamer as her Orlando also boasted a refreshing and dynamic presence and innate dignity of bearing. Mr. Hamer made Orlando at once propulsively infatuated, and vigorous yet gentle in his demeanor and his wooing. I must also cite Mr. Donaldson's introverted, Amish-like Jaques, Mr. Webster's genial, warm-hearted Duke Senior, Susan Coyne's impulsive Phebe, and Melanie Miller's lovely Celia. Behind it all hovers a sense of the melancholia that comes from the realization that youth is so ephemeral a part of mortal life.
The ``Romeo'' offered another aspect of this company's startling versatility. Where ``As You Like It'' is all elegant, idyllic sweetness and wistfulness, ``Romeo and Juliet'' is hard-edged, violent, and very contemporary in its setting of this eternal love story. Not that the lovers themselves are harshened, but the context of factionalism is aggressively sustained. And then there is the decadence that surrounds the two lovers: Mercutio, Romeo's closest friend (boldly played by Weston McMillan), is given his full scatological due; the Nurse (Miss Palk), Juliet's surrogate mother, rightfully becomes a principal character and the dark opposite of everything Juliet stands for.
Romeo is especially well acted by Albert Schultz, who was a splendidly dreaming, ethereal Touchstone in ``As You Like It.'' Mr. Schultz shows us a true lovestruck youth, who can convincingly let his love be overpowered and undone by Verona's traditions of vengeance. Miss Coyne's Juliet is of firmer purpose, faithful to Romeo and to love, even when love forces her to renounce everything she thought was dear.
Happily, Phillips's gifts do not lie exclusively in the fresh retelling of familiar tales. He can take an old-fashioned three-act drama like ``Journey's End'' and fill it with mood, mystery, and interest.
The setting is one claustrophobic trench in the middle of the particular horrors of World War I. The all-male cast convinces us it is living in this agonizing, grueling hell. And with such performances as Schultz's tense-to-snapping Stanhope, Webster's brick-solid, compassionate Osborne, and Donaldson's crusty, faithful Mason, the show gets across the sense of the futility of war, the pointless waste of it all.