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Rediscovering great comedy and one whatsit

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Three more knockout productions at Stratford present a gentle comedy, a laugh riot, and a Shakespeare whatsit.

Shakespeare's Timon of Athens partly seems to be written by someone else, is both tragic and garishly comical, and brilliantly and really badly written. Yet, this is the third Stratford production of Timon that has made it look like a minor masterpiece.

Michael Langham's landmark reworking of this messy play in 1963 with Duke Ellington at Stratford to create its score, and in 1991, again directed by Langham, gave variety to Shakespeare's tedious repetitions.

In this revival director Stephen Ouimette tones down that showy stage brilliance with more naturalistic acting. His starkly theatrical staging achieves vivid effects but does not call attention to his inventiveness. And, though he also uses modern dress, the music does not emphasize modernity the way Ellington's great score did.

The play may be a talky story, but this version is riveting. Its large cast is uniformly grabbing. Sean Arbuckle's powerful Alcibiades grows from impressive soldier to a menacing, wronged threat to Athens' corrupt leaders. Tom McCamus gives the cynical railer Apemantus more sympathetic humanity than usual. And Bernard Hopkins as Flavius, Timon's ever-faithful steward, takes us into his thoughts and feelings so completely that he almost takes over the play.

Peter Donaldson's Timon is sincerely in love with his own generosity but allows us to see the egocentricity of his giving while not accepting recompense. When he is betrayed by his ungrateful beneficiaries, his disappointment and wrath, though sympathetic, are excessive enough to lead logically to overwrought hatred of mankind. If not noble, his bitter hermit is titanic.

The loopy sweetness and eccentricity of Marivaux's The Triumph Of Love may account for this 18th-century comedy's recent popularity. Ignored here for more than two centuries, The Triumph Of Love had its first English-language production in Canada and a movie with Mira Sorvino and Ben Kingsley, both in 2001. A Broadway musical version with Betty Buckley and F. Murray Abraham in 1997 followed the straight play to New York, after which there was a production in Central Park and many around the US.

This 2004 Triumph Of Love is Stratford's first Marivaux, translated by associate-director John Van Burek, the director-translator of that first Canadian production. Reportedly less elegant, Stratford's Artistic Director Richard Monette's direction does seem a little too boisterous for Marivaux's uniquely gentle wit. But it's funny and entirely entertaining.

The fantasy plot involves beautiful princess Leonide who wants to return her throne to its rightful, deposed heir, young Agis. Disguised as a young man, Phocion, Leonide spots Agis and immediately falls in love with him, determining to win him as her husband while crowning him ruler. Agis is orphaned and brought up by the philosopher Hermocrate and his sister Leontine. Beautiful and innocent, he is guarded by Hermocrate from outsiders and taught to fear Princess Leonide, whom Hermocrate believes to be plotting to find and kill Agis.

To gain access to Agis, Leonide has to play woman and man to seduce both Hermocrate and his sister Leontine. Both plan to drop their asceticism and run off to marry Leonide/Phocion. Cute, lonely Agis is an easy conquest.

Monette doesn't make the philosopher and his spinster sister caricatures enough for us to laugh without some discomfort at their being made butts of the joke. James Blendick is warm, smart, and likable as Hermocrate; and Lucy Peacock's Leontine is dotty and goofy enough when she falls in love with this young 'man' to not only make us laugh but also win our affection. Still, both show such liberation from their former restraints that their betrayal seems almost justified. More problematical are both Andy Velasquez's Harlequin and Jeffrey Renn's loud Dimas: Their slapstick certainly gets laughs but seems too vulgar.

Claire Jullien is authoritative and properly in command at the happy ending, but seems tomboyish and awkward in some of her earlier romantic scenes. In the less demanding role of Corine, Brigit Wilson makes the switch from silly male to romantic female more easily. David Snelgrove is as plausible as Agis is likely to be. Overall, this handsomely produced comedy is good-natured and nonsensical enough to please a taste for light entertainment.

Michael Frayn'sNoises Off, on the other hand, is more intentionally broad comedy. Brian Bedford's let-it-all-hang-out direction turns one of the most successful laugh-getting plays about the theater into the funniest play on the topic ever. I was lucky to sit next to a sophisticated couple that has been attending Stratford since 1961: Neither knew this play, and both shook with laughter all through it.

The playwright provides an inner program for Robin Housemonger's Nothing On, the god-awful farce that is being performed by the characters in Noises Off. We are supposedly seeing untalented TV actors touring bush-league resort towns in a cheesy farce. So, even before the play starts, you can giggle at such program notes as: "Recently he made his 'big screen' debut in Up the Virgin Soldiers."

Act one introduces the characters: Dotty Otley --- longtime TV sitcom star and sometime stage actress, at least in Australia; Garry LeJeune --- dim-witted, young handsome actor having a fling with Dotty; Lloyd Dallas --- the frazzled director who is sure that he is too good for this assignment; Brooke Ashton --- stereotypical dumb blonde who is having a thing with director Lloyd; Poppy Norton-Taylor --- stage manager and all-purpose handy girl secretly pregnant by director Lloyd; Frederick Fellowes --- nervous, insecure actor; Belinda Blair --- glamorous actress in comic roles after an injury stopped her real talent as a dancer; Tim Allgood --- hapless techie and gofer; and Selsdon Mowbray --- hard-of-hearing old character actor, undependable when drunk.

We see this company in Nothing On from three perspectives, starting with a disastrous rehearsal in act one. Act two takes place backstage as we watch the performers' personal conflicts while different disasters are happening onstage during a performance. Act three lets us see a performance onstage when everything goes really wrong.

Seanna McKenna plays Dotty as a raunchy comedienne beset with problem props. Steve Cumyn is Lloyd, whose frustrations peak when his backside is hit backstage with a cactus plant. Jean-Michel LeGal's lovelorn Garry has glorious shtick showing jealous fury with an axe. His victim, Steven Sutcliffe's Frederick, innocently gets into the most obscene-looking groupings with Dotty, then has nervous nosebleeds at any sign of violence.

Chick Reed can look dazedly funny even when her Belinda is the only sensible one onstage. Jacob James' Tim, the sad factotum and fixer, is a whiz at most of the show's prop-jokes. Sara Topham can be as comical as sexy when semi-nude. Sophie Goulet's Poppy is riotous just making announcements on the mike. And Barry MacGregor is not only a parody ham actor vocally as Selsdon, but an absolute master at slapstick and comic poses.

Space permits only a kudo for all creators of design, sound, movement, music, and fights. This is low comedy as high art.

Stratford Festival,Stratford, Ontario: Timon of Athens at the Tom Patterson Theatrethrough September 25;The Triumph Of Love at the Studio Theatre through September 25; Noises Off at the Avon Theatrethrough October 30. Tix: $23.65 to $100.48 ($17.95 to $76.28 US). 800-567-1600, www.stratfordfestival.ca.

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