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A Real Repertory Theater

Filichia sees six plays in less than three days at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival. logo
The Alabama Shakespeare Festival’s Carolyn Blount Theatre
Trinity Repertory Company. Playmakers Repertory Company. California Repertory Company. New Jersey Repertory Company. Liars! Liars, all of them! Oh, they're excellent regional theaters, but they shouldn't include the word "repertory" in their names for they don't do shows in repertory -- meaning, for example, Cyrano de Bergerac one night, Private Lives the next, and Moon Over Buffalo the night after that. How many theaters in this country actually do repertory? To quote the Merrily gang, "Damn few."

And here's an irony: One theater that does offer a six-play repertory each summer doesn't include the word "repertory" in its name. That's the Alabama Shakespeare Festival in Montgomery, where I just saw The Two Gentlemen of Verona on Friday afternoon; James McLure's new play Iago on Friday night; Noises Off on Saturday afternoon; Arcadia on Saturday night; Othello on Sunday afternoon; and Romeo and Juliet on Sunday night. If I'd gone to most any other regional theater in this country, I would have at best seen two shows there over a three-day period. Here I caught a half-dozen in 56 hours.

As the rest of the audience and I readied ourselves for the Sunday night finale, company actress Kathleen McCall came on stage to congratulate all of us for sitting through "this intensive weekend." Excuse me, but all we did was park our carcasses three times in the 750-seat Festival Theatre (which housed Noises, Othello, and R&J) and three times in the 250-seat Octagon (which housed the other three). McCall and the other actors were the ones doing the really intensive stuff. Lord knows how they can keep track of all their roles. If it's Sunday, this must be Noises -- unless it's not.

While I love the chance to gorge on six productions in no time, I love even more the fact that I can see a performer in one role, then in another, and then in another still. It's one thing to adore Denis O'Hare playing his Tony-winning role in Take Me Out, but wouldn't we even be more impressed if the next night we saw him just as convincingly portray the hapless Launce in The Two Gentlemen of Verona? And we'd be still further impressed if, the next night, we caught him as a sympathetic Friar Laurence in Romeo and Juliet. That's what repertory can do for both an actor, who can be challenged more than usual, and an audience, who can appreciate the performer in multiple roles.

Best of all, the Alabama Shakespeare Festival has an associate artist program, so this isn't a theater where every actor comes in, does a show, and leaves after the closing night party. Artistic director Kent Thompson employs 20 actors as an ongoing company, so they're used to interacting with each other. That Thompson knows everyone's strengths and weaknesses as performers and personalities makes for better casting decisions and camaraderie.

I scanned the program in hopes that some of my favorite performers of years past were still around. Yup, there was Greg Thornton, though I was a tad disappointed to see that he was playing relatively minor roles: the Duke in Two Gents, Gratiano in Othello, and the senior Capulet in Romeo and Juliet. While he certainly did a fine job with the first two, he really shone in the final one. I've never seen an actor so wonderfully play the scene where Capulet tells off Tybalt, who insists that Romeo be evicted from the party. Thornton showed us a noble man who wants to be equitable, says he's heard good things about the kid, will give his enemy's son the benefit of the doubt, and won't listen to any argument against fair play. The actor made us admire Capulet, and that in turn made the ensuing tragedy all the more sorrowful.

How thrilled I was to see Philip Pleasants still on the scene in his 18th season with the festival. He's still doing top-notch work; given that he so resembles Boris Karloff in his prime, I wish they'd do Arsenic and Old Lace for him. On Friday, there he was in Iago, a play about a production of Othello that his character, Basil, was directing. The character was clearly based on No�«l Coward, not just because he was elegant and grandiose and would say "dear boy" at any opportunity but also because he mentioned that the play he'd written was called Lives of the Private Martinis. And Basil knew from martinis because his wit was indeed dry. Watching Pleasants pour on the irony in the line "There are no egos in the theater" was worth the price of admission. But when the time came to be serious, he was touching in saying "We all fall in love with our lost youth. It's one of the last loves we have" and "Wasting love and wasting talent are two of the most unforgivable sins."

Philip Pleasants and Greta Lambert in Arcadia
Fine. But, the next afternoon, there was Pleasants as the divinely dotty drunk Selsdon Mowbray in Noises Off. Here's another example of why repertory is fascinating, for in a way, Pleasants was playing a character who might have been Basil later in his career, after no one wanted his services any more and he was being handed minor roles only through the kindness of old friends. Sure, Mowbray was written to be nearly deaf and certainly incompetent, but Michael Frayn did give the guy that moment where he takes the opportunity to loll on a sofa and regale the company with a story of working with the greats. The way Pleasants let his right leg swing lazily back and forth let us know that Selsdon was enjoying himself and that he planned to make this one a long story. Hilarious! And, that night, there was Pleasants as the ever so shy and uncertain architect Richard Noakes in Arcadia. Even in such a small role, he was a delight.

This was my seventh visit to the theater in the last 11 years, for it's one of my favorite theatrical meccas. If it seems to you that the word "Alabama" seems incongruous with the word "Shakespeare," then I can tell that you've never been here. If you're thinking, "Montgomery, Alabama -- where the Kelly Tire Blue-Gray football game is played?" then you aren't one of the people from 31 states who subscribe to the entire six-play repertory season. That's what Thompson told me and, indeed, on a walk through the parking lot I saw license plates from Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Tennessee, Louisiana, Florida, and Oklahoma. How smart of their drivers to come enjoy theater in the environs of a 250-acre park that could pass for a beautifully manicured and tended English garden. The Festival may have begun humbly in a high school in rural Anniston in 1972 but it has thrived ever since high-tech mogul Wynton M. Blount and his wife gave $21.5 million to build this astonishing facility in Montgomery, which opened in 1985.

This is Thompson's 14th season, and while he's done exemplary work, his crowning glory was initiating the Southern Writers Project in 1991. Since then, he's commissioned, developed, produced, or directed 15 new plays by authors who live south of the Mason-Dixon line. More about this on Wednesday.


[To contact Peter Filichia directly, e-mail him at [email protected]]

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