STAGESTRUCK by Peter Filichia: At the Alabama Shakespeare Festival

STAGESTRUCK by Peter Filichia: At the Alabama Shakespeare Festival Julian Marsh in 42nd Street said that the two most beautiful words in the English language were "musical comedy." It's an opinion with which I cannot disagree. But I do insist that in third place is the word "repertory."

Julian Marsh in 42nd Street said that the two most beautiful words in the English language were "musical comedy." It's an opinion with which I cannot disagree. But I do insist that in third place is the word "repertory."

The opportunity to see six plays in 51 hours is one that most of us would cherish. But there aren't many companies in our land ready or willing to take up that challenge. The Alabama Shakespeare Festival is one, and so I spent the long Independence Day weekend in Montgomery.

Take that look off your face. Are you thinking, "Montgomery, Alabama -- where the Kelly Tire Blue-Gray football game is played?" Then come and see the splendors of a 250-acre park that could pass for a beautifully manicured and tended English garden.

The centerpiece is a building that required a million bricks. Here sits the 750-seat mainstage called "The Festival," a misnomer, really for there's more to the ASFestival than the Festival Theater. There's a 250-seat second space called the Octagon, though it looks rectangular to me.

What's in a name? The trump card is what they put up there: What I saw proved there wasn't a loser in the bunch, and everything I saw pleased audiences quite a bit. Here's what you would have seen had you joined me in Montgomery (as indeed you should have). At the Festival, an Importance of Being Earnest that brought loud guffaws from a crowd apparently experiencing for the first time the pleasures of Oscar Wilde's masterpiece; The Taming of the Shrew, set in 1950's America. ("It's our biggest hit," boasted ASF press manger W. Todd Humphries.) and Antony and Cleopatra set in the Napoleonic era.

I said, take that look off your face. Antony and Cleopatra were historic personages, but no Shakespearean scholar I know has listed Antony and Cleopatra among the histories. Kent Thompson, ASF's artistic director who staged it (and Shrew) explained his choice in a marvelous pre-play lecture that whetted his theatergoers' appetite for Shakespeare instead of intimidating them into thinking that they'd never understand it. As for that atypical setting? "Togas have a collegiate frat party feel," Thompson said, before frankly admitting that the costume shop did have an inordinate number of Napoleonic military uniforms.

Meanwhile, back at the Octagon, Measure for Measure measured up in Derek Anson Jones' production. The young director smartly set this tale of a politician's sexual harassment -- no, not in 1998 Washington (though that would fit a play in which a young woman is forced to say, "I'll tell the world what a man thou art," only to have high politico Angelo swat that away with, "Who would believe that, Isabella?"). Instead, Jones left the play in Vienna, but advanced it to the days of the Weimar Republic, a time and place where police state-threats and corruption seemed right at home. Shakespeare probably wouldn't have minded that Jones started the show in a cabaret with a seedy singer onstage and drag queen coming onto an unwilling male. Sam Mendes probably wouldn't, either.

But the most noteworthy tenants of the Octagon are The Coming of Rain, which Richard Marius adapted from his novel, and Vernon Early by Pulitzer Prize-winner Horton Foote. Each falls under the banner of Thompson's Southern Writers' Project, his most visionary achievement in his nine years on the job.

The Coming of Rain is about the ramifications of the Civil War that still haunts Montgomery. (It was, after all, the capital city of the Confederate States of America.) But Marius takes us to 1885 Tennessee, where Bourbon County hasn't had rain in 55 days. But just before Alfred Simson is hanged in front of a hostile crowd, he says as his last words, "It will rain tomorrow." That makes everyone in town a little more forgiving -- except for Preacher Bazely.

Simson's prediction doesn't, uh, hold water, but some psychic rain comes into the life of Sam Beckwith, who learns the truth about his widowed mother, who's spent the rest of her life mourning her husband who died in the conflict. If The Coming of Rain seemed to have more plot than theme, it still held its audience's interest.

Foote's Vernon Early, which he wrote three years ago, is having its world premiere at ASF. Vernon is an honest and devoted pediatrician, but when a domestic struggle needs a doctor to lend a reassuring hand and a pill, he's there, even in the middle of the night. (You ask, house calls? It's 1950, and we're in Harrison, Texas.)

Vernon's concern rankles his wife Mildred, once a beauty queen, though you wouldn't guess that now. She doesn't have much inner beauty, either -- but, to be fair, both she and Vernon endured a terrible blow 20 years earlier when the three-year-old they'd come to love and were in the process of adopting was abruptly taken from them. Mildred is always ready to throw money at the problem ("Let's take a cruise!"), but Vernon is too substantial a man to let that assuage the grief as she and his friends come to see.

Of course the wonderful aspect of repertory (love that word!) is seeing the actors' reach and range in a mere weekend's time. There was Greg Thornton, one of my favorite ASF'ers, splendidly playing Enobarbus in Antony and Cleopatra, both Algernon man-servant and Jack's butler in Earnest, and Preacher Bazely in Coming. Thornton has been here for eight substantial seasons, a drop in the bucket compared to the 15 logged by Philip Pleasants, who, as Vernon, gave the best performance I've seen in this young season.

In a phone conversation with Foote, I learned he felt much the same. "I was pleasantly surprised with the production," he said, "for, to be frank, at the first reading, I thought I wouldn't have cast it the way. But I was bowled over when I eventually saw it. I didn't see the production of my Traveling Lady which they did last year, but my agent did, and on the strength of that recommendation, I gave them the play." He also said he'd think about giving them another.

Though the entire 1998-99 ASF season hasn't been set, expect Richard III as one of the Shakespeares, Lurleen (Mrs. George Wallace becomes governor after her husband is incapacitated) as the newest entry in the Southern Writers' Project, and It Ain't Nothin' But the Blues, a new musical. When the last- named opens, the Alabama Shakespeare Festival will then offer its audiences all three greatest words in the English language.

-- Peter Filichia is the New Jersey theater critic for the Star-Ledger.
You can e-mail him at Pfilichia@aol.com