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STAGE WEEK

Bedford Finds Much More 'Ado'

July 20, 1986|JANICE ARKATOV

Canada's loss is Southern California's gain this summer as Tony award-winner Brian Bedford takes his place in the San Diego Old Globe repertory season, playing the title role in Shakespeare's "Richard II" (through Aug. 31) and directing "Much Ado About Nothing" (opening today in the Lowell Davies Festival Theatre).

"I have been going to Stratford in Ontario for the past 10 years," offered the British-born actor. "But I was beginning to feel like a part of the scenery up there. So I decided to have a change."

Bedford (who's segued from a national tour last year of "The Real Thing" and will depart San Diego to begin rehearsals for a Broadway-bound production of "Blithe Spirit"), feels that repertory is the nicest way to go: "I'd feel very weird on a normal schedule. Even long-running plays (he spent three years in Peter Shaffer's "Five Finger Exercise"). Eight times a week, the same thing--I dread it.

"I suppose I'm spoiled by classical theater. In repertory, you get a couple of nights off, you're usually working with people you know. Yet the schedule here is rather grueling: You don't do anything but go to the theater, sleep and eat. But if you love your work the way I do, and are especially happy in the company of William Shakespeare, you can manage."

Bedford is no stranger to "Much Ado," having played Benedick to Maggie Smith's Beatrice at Ontario several years ago. "And I've seen quite a few other productions," he said. "I always thought of Beatrice and Benedick as two of the most charming, original creatures--but put in the frame of a play that is a bit dusty and dreary. So this is my attempt to make the play work.

"There's a strange process of acting Shakespeare," he added. "You have to have a lot of respect--but also wring its neck. You know, I've never seen the depths of 'Much Ado' plumbed. And I think there's a tremendous seriousness in Shakespeare's comedies. He holds up a mirror to nature just as much in his comedies as in his tragedies.

"So that's how I've approached it: not as a comedy or a diversion. I think there's a great irony in the title; it's not meant to be a souffle, escapist entertainment."

Within an 1860s Italian setting (with visual aspects reminiscent of "the interminable party scene in Visconti's 'The Leopard' "), Bedford feels he's uncovered the "secret" core of Shakespeare's story: "the effect of evil on some very good people--and how that poison almost ruins their lives."

The result of his efforts?

"I never realized it was quite as good a play as it is."

How often have you been in a theater where the ratio of seats was about equal to the number of players onstage? That's the curious setup of "Street Scene," Elmer Rice's 1929 Pulitzer Prize-winner about a group of tenement dwellers in 1920s New York. It opens Friday at Company of Angels.

"We have 46 actors, one dog--and 51 seats in the theater," said director Richard Morof. "So it's going to be hand-to-hand combat."

Rice's story centers on the day-to-day lives of five low-income families (an ethnic mix that includes Jews, Swedes, Germans and WASPs) and the events that follow when one of the women in the building takes a lover.

"It's intense," Morof conceded of the work's tone. "One of the original reviews of the play talks about its 'almost documentary realism.' So I'm trying to represent the way it was then--as Rice was, writing without the knowledge of what was to come in the world: the Holocaust, the Depression."

At the same time, the director found a disturbing contemporary parallel: "There are so many homeless now, people living on the edge. That's what the characters here are about. Living in two and three-room flats, just trying to stay even. It's a picture that speaks frighteningly of what it's like (for the lower class) today."

In the premiere department: "Figaro Gets a Divorce," a play by Odon von Horvath, opens tonight at the La Jolla Playhouse.

Although it's a play new to America, the characters aren't: They're taken from the fourth act of Beaumarchais' "The Marriage of Figaro" (on which Mozart based his opera) "and plopped into the 1930s," said set designer Doug Stein. "The play is Von Horvath's exploration of what happens to the characters in this new world."

Stein's set for the "20th-Century epic framework" follows a personal credo: "to support the text, to capture that flavor, sensation and charm--and put it on the stage."

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