WITH JAMES EARL JONES and Christopher Plummer, two major actors, in the balanced roles of Othello W and Iago, the American Shakespeare Festival again is playing phoenix, rising from what often seemed ashes. Under the direction of England's Peter Coe, this "Othello" comes into the Warner Theatre Sept. 8 for a three-week run. What with the splash the Kennedy Center will be making for its 10th-anniversary celebration, this early start easily could be neglected, but rarely does a season begin on such a high.

The American Shakespeare Festival is the direct result of a nightmare, whose dreamer correctly predicted that it would take 25 to 30 years "to make the inevitable mistakes."

The dreamer was a Welsh-born patent attorney who dabbled so successfully in theater that he became co-founder, ultimately boss, of New York's Theater Guild. He was the decades-long leading American theater producer, Lawrence Langner, who died in 1962.

Through his income-assuring work with the National Inventors' Council, Langner used to visit Washington frequently, apart from his theatrical business. He liked to come up to a chaotic newspaper office and talk theater. Since he was notoriously tight with a dime, I was intrigued when he phoned and asked me out for a drink.

"I've something to tell you," he began, characteristically at the beginning.

"I dreamed that I had died and was laid out in our Westport living room. As I looked down at myself in my coffin in the light of six tall candles, I thought to myself: 'Lawrence, your life has been a failure. You twice tried to perpetuate the plays of the great Shakespeare, and with neither acting company you formed did you succeed in anything permanent. How shameful, how tragic, that you have died without completing that mission!

"Then I awoke in my upstairs bedroom, and I instantly determined to build a theater to his name, a theater and a conservatory. I can't wait to get started. My nightmare I take as a warning."

So began four years of enthusing, begging and searching. To his and partner-wife Armina Marshall's astonishment, they found that on the Connecticut River, little more than an hour's drive from Westport, was a little town named Stratford. That settled where. The matter of how -- zoning, official recognition -- was resolved by an earlier movie star who had turned to Republican politics, Gov. John Davis Lodge, who, with his wife, Francesca Braggiotti, took the lead in inspiring citizens of the Nutmeg state to the cause.

The huge theater took shape on a parkland stretching down to the river, with picnic tables scattered on the fields and a mooring dock for those who arrived by water. Its size and awkwardness would be the building's lasting plague and there have been, over the years, more downs than ups. When Walter Kerr dubbed it "The Howard Johnson of the Arts," Lawrence took the slur with manly bouyancy: "That's just what I'd like it to be, a broadly popular, reliable place for a mass audience to meet Shakespeare."

"I know we're not ready," he said that opening summer of 1955 (by which time Oregon's Shakespeare Festival was 20 years old), "but we must open now. It will take 25 to 30 years to shake down what this building can become. The sooner we start the better; the more time to make the inevitable mistakes."

In the cast of "Julius Caesar" that July night were Raymond Massey, Hurd Hatfield, Roddy McDowall, Jack Palance, Fritz Weaver, Peter Donat, Earle Hyman, Leora Dana, Jerry Stiller and a young Canadian as Antony, Christopher Plummer, now our Iago, a not ignoble if oddly assorted, group. They would follow with "The Tempest" and "Much Ado About Nothing."

Through the years all sorts of leading players would lend a hand, Helen Hayes, Maurice Evans, Katharine Hepburn, Zoe Caldwell, Jane Alexander, Morris Carnovsky, Stephen Joyce, Larry Gates, Robert Ryan, Joyce Ebert, Will Geer, Hiram Sherman, Sada Thompson, Kim Hunter, Richard Basehart, Hal and Ruby Holbrook, Philip Bosco, Carrie Nye, Lester Rawlins, Roy Scheider, Douglas Watson, George Voscovec floating to mind. There were such directors as John Houseman, William Ball, Michael Kahn, Ellis Rabb and Alan Fletcher.

Kate Hepburn and Alfred Drake played Ninth Street's Gayety in "Much Ado About Nothing" with a Texas setting, and "Troilus and Cressida" used Civil War decor and costumes for a visit to the Kennedy White House.

There was some touring but not enough, and that was one of the Festival's troubles, for a lasting company never was achieved. Actors had to eat during the other six to eight months a year. Despite the valiant efforts of such producers as Joseph Verner Reed and Konrad Matthai, the American Stratford stumbled out of competition two summers ago.

This summer it came back under producers Don Gregory and Barry and Fran Weissler, with Plummer as Prince Hal followed by this production of "Othello," which begins a season-long tour here to wind up next spring in a Broadway house.

As Joe Papp will assure you, Shakespeare's large casts are a luxury today and to tour risks likely bankruptcy. Still, here are wonderful lunatics who insist that "we can make it." Director Coe's staging requires some 30 players, somewhat less than the legendary Booth, Irving and Salvini 19th-century groups took for granted. Add backstage, business crews and advertising costs and you have a lot of bills to pay, as many as a big musical smash. But riskily priced far lower.

And so to "Othello," which Laurence Olivier once described as the result of Shakespeare and his favorite player, Richard Burbage, getting drunk: "Burbage boasted that he could act any role Shakespeare could invent. Shakespeare accepted the challenge, and that's when he wrote 'Othello.' "

For here is a play that seems to be on a single theme, jealousy, but the choices for the two leading actors are limitless.

There is the matter of color. Should Othello be an African or a Moor? A great American black actor, Ira Aldridge, for whom Howard University's theater is named, couldn't get much work in 19th-century America, but "the Negro Roscius," as contemporaries called him, was sensationally popular as Othello from London to St. Petersburg. Olivier himself tackled the part after Gielgud admittedly failed, Olivier emphasizing the general's blackness and using a Caribbean lilt to his reading. It's been preserved on film and, agree with it or not, it's priceless.

Unfortunately, most of the historic Othellos came before the flicks but critics agree that England's Kean and Irving, America's Booth and Italy's Salvini were outstanding with their varied shadings of character from goodness of heart to passion of body. At all events, each generation discovers its own Shakespeare.

Is this merely a story of jealousy? Jones declares not. He observes: "Jealousy is what the play is assumed to be about, but, though the word is used throughout, at no time does Othello resolve that he's jealous. It is Iago who brings that up. Leontes, in 'A Winter's Tale,' discovers his own jealousy, but Othello never stops loving Desdemona."

Jones feels that "what we in the 20th century know as racism can't be capitalized on here. The epilepsy scene, often cut in the 18th and 19th centuries, does become an emotional block that he can't resolve."

Jones has had a lot of experience with Othello, having first acted him in a summer theater in 1963 and in five productions since. One can expect that these experiences have resolved aspects of Jones' characterization few actors have had 18 years to discover.

For instance, for a man smart enough to be hired to save Venice, why is Othello so damned gullible? That's a hitch many find in reading the play. Why should he believe Iago? Here we come to the choices Plummer's Iago has had to make. James H. Hackett, a 19th-century American, finally gave up the role as too difficult for him, but his reasonings set forth the problems.

Iago, Hackett claimed, is four distinct personalities, as he seems to Othello, to Roderigo, to Cassio and also to the audience. On stage the first three in the hands of a competent actor can be clarified, creating plausiblity in all three. But the asides are something else. How does Plummer resolve them?

Plummer, above all, is an elegant actor. He has crisp, controlled style and vocal precision. From a Mercutio to Julie Harris' Juliet at the Canadian Stratford, Plummer has used essential character, seizing on detail, embroidering a basic idea. Even the film roles that he began in Sidney Lumet's "Stage Struck" and "The Sound of Music" had a finish few actors ever master.

For the present, Lawrence Langner's dream is again reality with stirring casting for Othello and Iago.

Will Jones and Plummer, as so many actors of the past did, switch roles for occasional performances? That's where the color question reenters. In recent years Paul Robeson, Earle Hyman and Brock Peters (at Arena Stage) have had the part. American audiences of today might boggle at Plummer in black face, Jones in white. But Jones has acted white roles, and Plummer's bronzed Inca of "The Royal Hunt of the Sun" is unforgettable.

Yes, everything about "Othello" leads to choices. Read the play first and you'll catch how, why, where and when Jones and Plummer make their choices.