ROME — Imagine a roomful of theater critics babbling in a dozen languages with a handful of simultaneous translators trying to keep up.
You might think Judgment Day had arrived. Artists, at the very least, could find such a congregation intimidating. Yet the playwrights and actors invited to address the recent five-day Ninth International Congress of Theatre Critics here seemed to welcome the opportunity on a variety of levels.
A chance to carp back at the carpers? That never materialized. Perhaps the numbers were overwhelming. More than 100 theater writers from 34 countries assembled in the Sala del Cenacolo, an impressive Renaissance room that is part of the Italian Parliament and whose name designates at once a gathering of artists or literati and/or the Last Supper--a perverse juxtaposition when you consider the occasion.
Instead, the tedium of the obligatory speechifying that attends such assemblies (this one's theme: "The Language of the Theater in the Age of Mass Media") was mostly leavened by lively deviations from it.
By and large, participants addressed whatever was on their mind, as exemplified by Italy's most prominent and divergent theater men: the infamous Dario Fo ("Accidental Death of an Anarchist") and the famous Giorgio Strehler (whose "The Tempest" last year took the Olympic Arts Festival in Los Angeles by storm).
Among the more interesting critical reports, Shoshana Avigal offered an informed account of the state of theater in Israel as itself "a form of mass media," representing "an intellectual minority that affects a popular majority." This she attributed to strong subsidies, extensive press coverage and theater's ability to compete with mass media as an interpreter of "reality in process."
Avigal cited examples of mixed companies of Jewish and Arab actors interchanging roles to demonstrate the universality of their condition (a Joseph Chaikin experiment), the Arab El Hakawati company playing to large Jewish audiences and a mixed cast production of "Waiting for Godot." Sometimes, where diplomacy fails. . . .
Touching on other political realities, two well-established designers--the Czech Joseph Svoboda and the Italian Lele Luzzati (a respected specialist in collage designs for the stage)--had been set to appear in tandem. But Svoboda was unable to obtain an exit visa and Luzzati had to appear alone. ("Do you know what 'Svoboda' means?" a lamenting colleague whispered. "It means freedom.")
Playwright Tom Stoppard (a Czech turned Englishman) had his name on the program, but never came. Two of his colleagues did: Arnold Wesker ("The Kitchen") and Christopher Hampton ("Savages," "Tales of Hollywood").
Hampton started to address the question, but, aware of his audience, ended up making an impassioned plea for the preservation of the playwright: "Our profession rests on ground of unbelievable fragility," he said. "We're walking on glass." As for putting on a play in America, "(it's) like jumping out of an airplane with only the theoretical possibility of a parachute." (Was he recalling his experience with "Tales" at the Mark Taper?)
Wesker, an engaging speaker, tackled the nature of dialogue.
"Like form," he offered, "it's dictated by material. You could say I've no interest in writing; I'm only interested in reassembling experience. No art can ever be realistic. All art deals with reality, whether, like Beckett, you're dealing with realistic behavior in an absurd environment or, like Chekhov, you deal with absurd behavior in a realistic environment."
All of which would be utterly foreign to satirist Dario Fo, a bear of a man with the sturdy personal geography of a peasant and a smile as wide as the Adriatic. This quintessential serious clown spoke chiefly about his much more spontaneous process, attributing its success to a nucleus of dependable acolytes and "a wife (actress/playwright Franca Rame) who's a terrific improvisationalist."
"The text as printed," he said, "is usually the result of two years of trial and error. Invariably, the public has been the one to tell me what works and what doesn't. Then we clean it up (form, not content) and present something economical, clear."
There was the opportunity to check this out. Fo and Rame (a revelation as a superlative comedienne) were performing in their iconoclastic version of "Harlequin" at Teatro Tenda, a huge tent theater that proved the perfect setting for their populist brand of Commedia. While a small industry of Fomania was being hawked in the lobby (everything from tapes and posters to the published plays, along with beer and pizza), they were playing to what was clearly their people: a rowdy, appreciative, mostly blue-collar crowd.
Watching Fo and Rame's masterful slapstick, listening to their free-wheeling repartee as they took on Socialist Prime Minister Bettino Craxi and Foreign Minister Giulio Andreotti in an idiosyncratic Northern Italian dialect, it became clear why their plays rarely survive translation.