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Guffaw-inspiring opener

Georges Feydeau's plays from the turn of the century are quintessential French farce. The plots typically involve extramarital exploits of Parisians who all end up in the wrong hotel room at the wrong time with much running around and slamming of doors and hiding under beds.

The Asolo Theatre opens its 38th season this weekend with Feydeau's There's One in Every Marriage, a translation by Suzanne Grossmann and Paxton Whitehead of Le Dindon. Artistic director Howard Millman directed the play 22 years ago during his earlier tenure at the Asolo, with Brad Wallace in the role of Vatelin, which he will reprise this season.

"One of the reasons I chose it was the brilliant performance Brad Wallace had given in the lead role, and I wanted to revive that with him again, because he's a very special farceur," Millman said. "I think the years have sharpened his talents even more. He is one of the cleanest actors I know, particularly in things like farce, where the trick is not to waste any motion and get the laughs. The cocking of an eyebrow, the timing of a delivery of a line _ Brad is just wonderful in a Feydeau farce."

Millman, in his third season as head of the Asolo, believes the theater is turning itself around, after almost going under several years ago. "I like to say the Asolo's back," he said. "Last season, we balanced our books for the first time in many years and made all our sales goals. We have gone from 2,900 subscriptions when I came to 6,000 last year to what will be 8,000 this year. This is a major success story."

With a budget of $3.5-million, the Asolo season comprises seven plays in rotating repertory. Another is Wendy Wasserstein's The Sisters Rosensweig, which Millman thinks will have the same appeal to audiences that made last season's The Immigrant by Mark Harelik the most popular play in Asolo history.

"I picked the play as kind of a sequel of The Immigrant, because it continues the saga," he said. "The Immigrant was about what can you retain of your identity in this new country _ how can you survive and retain a bit of who you are? The Sisters Rosensweig takes the question a generation or two later and asks, How much can I get rid of, how much can I lose to be an American?"

Millman is in the cast of The Sisters Rosensweig, playing Mervyn Kant, a Jewish furrier from Brooklyn. It's the artistic director's first stage role in 25 years.

"I was always very good at memorization, and I thought I would have trouble, because as you get older, your memory really starts to go, but so far I seem to be in pretty good shape," he said. "The difficulty in the beginning was making the switch, taking off all my hats and just being an actor. I was probably most panicked at the first reading, because here was the boss, in among the rest of the actors. But it seems to be working well."

That play and Julius Caesar open this month. There's One in Every Marriage opens Saturday night and continues through Jan. 23. Call (941) 351-8000.

MORE THEATER _ A production of The Tempest, with George Miller as Caliban, by the Avenue Players opens tonight and runs through Nov. 23 at Tarpon Springs Performing Arts Center. Tickets are $11. Call 942-5605.

Chicago City Limits, an improv group from New York, is at the Jaeb Theater of Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center for four shows through Sunday. Tickets are $15.50 and $17.50. Call 229-7827.

QUARTET _ Here's a question to reflect upon during Sunday's concert by the St. Petersburg String Quartet, an award-winning Russian ensemble, at the Museum of Fine Arts: Was Shostakovich the greatest classical composer born in the 20th century?

Shostakovich wrote 15 string quartets, and it's an analytical cliche to match them to his 15 symphonies, treating the symphonies as the composer's history of the Soviet Union and the quartets as his own emotional history. He didn't start writing the quartets until the mid-1930s, when he already had completed five symphonies. The quartets are a monumental achievement, comparable to those of Beethoven. The St. Petersburg String Quartet (founded as the Leningrad Quartet in 1985) was nominated for a Grammy Award for its Sony recording of Nos. 3, 5 and 7.

Sunday, the group will play Shostakovich's Quartet No. 8 in C minor, one of the finest individual works in the cycle. Also on the program are Beethoven's Quartet in C minor (Op. 18, No. 4) and Glazunov's Quartet No. 5 in D minor (Op. 70). The concert is at 2 p.m. Tickets are $20. Call 896-2667.

COMPOSER _ USF music professor and composer Hilton Jones will perform his three piano fantasies on plainsong melodies, and the Driving Rhythm vocal ensemble will sing his Gregorian chants in a concert at 7 p.m. Sunday at Unitarian Universalist Church, 719 N Arlington Ave., St. Petersburg.

"The music featured in this evening's concert is in a unique style that is difficult to categorize," Jones says in a program note. "Not self-consciously modern, nor obviously in a popular style, it is a different type of contemporary classical music that rejects the notion of forward progress in music history, but instead attempts to provide the listener with a satisfactory musical experience unrelated to style. This approach began in 1969 with Mr. Jones' brief contact with the American composer John Cage, and developed with Jones' forays, as a result of Cage's encouragement, into the fields of minimalism and rock in the early '70s. Eventually these two musical interests melded into the current, hybrid style heard this evening."

Tickets are $10 and $12. Call 898-3294.

MORE MUSIC _ Hindemith's Octet for winds and strings is on the program of a concert at 7:30 p.m. Monday by members of the Florida Orchestra plus USF music faculty at TBPAC's Playhouse. Also on the agenda are Schubert's Trout Quintet and Mozart's Kegelstatt Trio for clarinet, viola and piano. Tickets are $6. Call 229-7827.

Pianist Awadagin Pratt plays Pictures from an Exhibition along with works by Handel, Brahms and Bach in a recital at 8 p.m. Thursday at Van Wezel Hall. Tickets are $26 to $30. Call (800) 826-9303.