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Feeling bewildered at Stratford 

Canada's great Stratford Festival continues its 51st season's bewildering variety with six productions of classic plays, all well-known but not previously performed at Stratford.

            Jean-Paul Sartre's No Exitteases intriguing variations out of the cliché that "Hell is other people." Its perfect dramatic structure counterbalances three opposed new arrivals in hell who are trapped in a room together forever, where they come to realize that they are created to frustrate one another.

            Vincent requires assurance of his decency --- that he refused to fight in war as a matter of conscience, not cowardice. He needs to convince Inez, who is strong-minded and dislikes him, because the flirtatious Estelle assures him that she has no interest in his doubts and will accept him as coward or anything else if he will love her. But self-tormented Vincent has no interest in beautiful Estelle, who defines herself in terms of men's love and requires it as a flattering "mirror" to affirm her value. Inez, a lesbian, sees Vincent only as a rival for Estelle and taunts him as a coward, rather than affirming his value. And, of course, Inez requires affection from Estelle, who responds to her with loathing, then ignores her.

            Jim Warren directs the characters' interaction with effective touches of humor, but the existential angst that Sartre wanted this merry-go-round to provide doesn't come through with anything like dramatic passion. Claire Jullien is beautiful and flighty enough for Estelle, but as a girlish lightweight rather than a man-hungry temptress. Chick Reid's Inez is actually sexier than Estelle and dryly sophisticated, so her attraction to Estelle as a girl-toy plays persuasively. But Reid's hard edge seems merely stylish rather than strong, and her opposition to Vincent seems only a feminine game. Stephen Ouimette gets everything right about Vincent but somehow doesn't make us feel the anguish he proclaims. The whole production, including Sue LePage's forgettable designs, seems a nicely executed exercise more than a compelling drama.

There are plenty of theatrical high jinks in The Birds, the first ancient Greek comedy to play at Stratford. But Greek-born director Nikos Dionysios doesn't make it connect with a modern audience as having much meaning. No translation of The Birds that I know makes it seem nearly as funny as Aristophanes' great comedies like Lysistrata or even his raunchy literary satire, Thesmaphoriazousae.

            But the old translation by Dudley Fitts used here is especially fusty. And the silly props and "modern" suggestions used for the characters specially satirizing ancient Greek targets --- Poet, Prophet, etc. --- suggest no meaningful modern parallel. The in-jokes about the gods and myths --- Prometheus with a bleeding lower stomach, for instance --- convey pedantry more than comedy. Teresa Przybylski's bird-costumes are certainly colorful enough but not very birdlike and --- except for the smart designer-showcase metallic costumes for Euelpides, Pisthetairos and Epops --- not effectively differentiated.

            I like Dionysios' very choreographed chorus movement, and the appearances of the exotic birds in the aisles among the audience will certainly get your attention. The whole first section with the two Athenian con-men, Keith Dinicol's cocky Pisthetairos and Bernard Hopkins' grousing Euelpides, leaving Athens to start a Utopian new society in Cloudcuckooland among their bird-converts is an engrossing set-up promising more spectacular hilarity to come.

            But Aristophanes' whole point that these visionaries promise the birds freedom as they simply enslave them is pretty much submerged in this high-styled, highbrow production. After the plot makes us lose Hopkins' adorable clowning, we have only Dinicol to carry the comedy and an occasional bird's funny line delivery. The rest looks like a pointless pageant, not at all helped by Michael Vieira's academic music.

I guess the singular, sure-fire modern comedy among all this high culture, Noel Coward's Present Laughter, directed by and starring Brian Bedford, might be condescended to as a popular safe bet. But undeniably first-class theater should never be undervalued.

            Bedford is a proven master of high-style comedy as director and actor, and he surrounds himself here with hand-chosen actors and designers to produce a perfectly polished entertainment. Coward played with his own famous image in Present Laughter:It is autobiographical and farcical without quite descending into autobiography and farce. The comedy is elegantly poised between a satirical picture of London's pre-World War II theatrical haut monde and a bedroom farce about a star actor-playwright and the wicked interplay between his supportive inner circle and his rapacious admirers.

            Bedford, who was Coward's friend and an admired performer of roles Coward originally wrote for himself, tosses of a portrayal of the star-role, Garry Essendine, slyly balanced with an imitation of Noel Coward. I'm not entirely convinced or enchanted by Sara Botsford as the femme fatale Joanna, wife of Garry Essendine's producer, Hugo. Joanna seduces Garry as well as Morris, Garry's and Hugo's business partner. And, though they're reasonably effective, Raymond O'Neill and Shane Carty could do more with the roles of Hugo and Morris, respectively. But the roles with more comic play are impeccably cast.

            Patricia Collins as Essendine's sharp-tongued Scandinavian cook, Brian Tree as his unflappable manservant, and Domini Blythe as his suave wife, all ideally handle Coward's verbal gems and assured displays of sophisticated manners. Seana McKenna is so sure-handed with the sarcasm of Essendine's essential secretary, Monika, that we wish he'd marry her.

            Two outsiders who offer farcical complications bring the hilarity almost to a boil. Tim Macdonald deliberately teeters hilariously close to caricature as Essendine's crazed admirer, a would-be playwright and confirmed nutcase. And Michelle Giroux is the ultimately awkward, annoying ingénue chasing after Essendine, neatly supported by Lally Cadeau as her well-placed, unaware mother. This sumptuous physical production --- Michael Yeargan's richly detailed set and Catherine Zuber's period costumes, both stunningly lit by Michael J. Whitfield --- would have pleased Noel Coward.

The background on the House of Atreus is mentioned in the dialogue of all three "Greek" plays, which take us through the mythology of Aeschylus' Oresteia. You need only know that there's a curse on the house. The reason isn't part of this action and is more disgusting than Shakespeare's stolen version in Titus Andronicus.

            We start with Agamemnon, Aeschylus' tragedy in Ted Hughes' contemporary translation. I assume that the interpolation of Cassandra's later dialogue with the chorus, as a prologue before Aeschylus' prologue, is director David Latham's, not Hughes'. The succeeding choral ode, the longest in all of surviving ancient Greek drama, is mercifully cut. But Cassandra's later, interminable scene is not only played out very slowly to the last syllable, but also excerpted for that extra prologue and again as a voice-over after the play is over. Latham wants us to get the point that her prophecy was always right and never believed, although Aeschylus' text says that twice anyway.

            The plot is fairly simple: King Agamemnon returns victorious from the Trojan War to Argos, where his wife, Queen Clytemnestra, kills him and his trophy captive, Princess Cassandra of Troy. Clytemnestra says she is avenging Agamemnon's sacrifice of their daughter, Iphigeneia, which he did to insure the Greeks' successful voyage to Troy. The people threaten their Queen, but her lover, Aegisthus, scares them off.

            I like the choral odes, staged with clear meaning and intensity. Karen Robinson is sometimes over the top as Clytemnestra, but she's nothing if not intense and commanding. Sara Topham is touching and tragic as Cassandra, but her speeches do go on and on. And Scott Wentworth is a potent Aegisthus. There's a clear sense of tragic acting, but not much feeling of real tragedy here.

Next we move to a pre-World War II French treatment of Aeschylus's Choephori, the story of Electra and Orestes. Jean Giraudoux's Electra has the Gallic wit and offbeat approach you would expect of an anti-war, sophisticated French playwright who also became a part of the collaborationist Vichy government. Electra doesn't know that her mother killed her father; she just hates Clytemnestra because she senses that her mother is evil. And, anyway, her mother seemed to hate her, and they argue over whether Clytemnestra or Electra tried to drop her son Orestes and hurt him. Orestes is back, and doesn't know that his mother killed his father, but thinks he should have inherited the throne from his father.

            They all argue with a beggar, who seems to be an omniscient chorus. Aegisthus recognizes that Princess Electra is a threat and wants to marry her to the Gardener. The Judge is an accomplice but doesn't want his nephew, the Gardener, to marry into the troublesome house of Atreus. His wife, Agatha, is cheating on the judge, tries to seduce Orestes, and has slept with Aegisthus. And this chorus of Eumenides, first silly young girls, then older, then full-blown women, keeps showing up and causing trouble. Eventually Orestes will kill Aegisthus, though Aegisthus is needed to save Argos from threatening barbarians. Mostly, it's all a debate.

            Sara Dodd gives a strong, multi-leveled performance as Electra. Dion Johnstone is handsome and heroic as Orestes. Robinson and Wentworth are splendid in Giradoux's more complex roles of Clytemnestra and Aegisthus. And Sean Arbuckle is funny and strong and memorable as The Beggar. The three new commoners --- Walter Borden's harrumphing Judge, Rami Posner's cleverly underplayed Gardener, and Sara Topham's hilariously slutty Agatha --- almost steal the play from the major players.

Finally, Jean-Paul Sartre's masterpiece, The Flies, in Stuart Gilbert's standard translation, is an Existentialist treatment of Aeschylus' Choephori and Eumenides written during the Nazi occupation of France.Beginning with the story of Electra, it ends with Orestes as an individualistic Existentialist Hero. Aeschylus turns the Furies into the Eumenides, the "Kindly ones," as Orestes' jury in a trial. Denying the whole Aeschylean concept of personal vengeance becoming state-administered justice, philosopher-dramatist Sartre has Orestes make his own decision, avoid any trial, and lead the Furies off from the state as he becomes engaged in determination of his own fate.

            Sound preachy and overly intellectual? Well, it is; but Sartre's genius is that he can make philosophic debate dramatically compelling while no less complex than Giradoux's witty paradoxes. Electra falls by the wayside here because she thinks in the old terms of personal revenge. Aegisthus, though he ironically recants his villainies and becomes a virtuous leader, still represents the cant of political necessities and subordination of individual will to the good of the state. Orestes has no such outside motivations: he wants to find his own existential truth.

            The same actors continue in these roles: Robinson not as powerful as before because her role is more circumscribed, and Wentworth stunningly persuasive as Aegisthus. His counterpart is Electra, beautifully played by Dodd. And the stars here are really the major antagonists --- Dion Johnstone as the heroic Orestes, and Steve Cumyn as Jupiter --- all powerful in the old system but forced to acknowledge Orestes' individual mind.

            Peter Lichtenfels directs with lucid strength. Lorenzo Savoini memorably designed all three plays in the small Studio Theatre to make use of distinctive symbols on the same Greek Temple-style set: a huge head of Jupiter in The Flies, for instance, or a blood-red drape in Electra. Appropriately, The Flies may be the strongest of the three productions, but it gains impact when seen as the culmination of this fascinating movement of the Greek trilogy through modern history.

Stratford Festival: Jean-Paul Sartre's No Exit at the Patterson Theatre through August 29, Aristophanes' The Birds at the Patterson Theatre through September 27, Noel Coward's Present Laughter at the Avon Theatre though November 1, Aeschylus' Agamemnon at the Studio Theatre through August 29, Jean Giraudoux's Electra at the Studio Theatre through August 30, Jean-Paul Sartre's The Flies at the Studio Theatre through August 30.

            Call 1-800-567-1600 for information, special events, and tours, accommodations, and tickets in a range of prices from $20.70 to $105.40 Canadian dollars [currently $15.46 to $78.71 US dollars]. E-mail: orders@ stratfordfestival.ca. Website: www.stratfordfestival.ca.

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