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Chaikin: An Actor's Life As A Metaphor


An assassin's bullet is aimed at your heart. The assassin is your heart. Think of the care you must take in your steps, in your plot for getting through every waking day. To go through life like that has to give you a heightened consciousness of the strange evanescence of things, of the preciousness of the ordinary.

This is how actor-director Joseph Chaikin, one of the most mysteriously luminous figures in the history of modern theater, must edge through his day after three open-heart surgeries. Chaikin's troubled heart, and the war of the spirit against the flesh, undergoes examination in Jean-Claude van Itallie's new play "The Traveler," which premieres Thursday at the Mark Taper Forum.

"Think of the implications of what it means to have open heart surgery, to have one's heart actually opened," Van Itallie said. "Yet the last thing I want this to be thought of is a hospital play."

Van Itallie's anxieties about audiences misconceiving "The Traveler" are certainly justified. So many plays of the past 12 years, beginning with Michael Cristofer's "The Shadow Box" in 1975, have been concerned with terminal illness and right-to-die issues that a cloud of ether has risen above the landscape of American theater, whose seeming death knell has been signaled by the clangor of the bedpan. Virtually none of them has evoked the spirituality of the human organism.

The life of Joe Chaikin has been more intimately concerned with these things than any of those plays, but paradoxically more removed as well. Though he's not a household word, where Chaikin is known (in American experimental theater circles he's held in almost mystical regard) he's remembered as one of the architects of the last true revolution in American theater--the Living Theater and Open Theater experiments of the early '60s in New York that attempted to break up the glacial weight of naturalism and Actors Studio conceits.

The lives and careers of Chaikin and Van Itallie have been intertwined since 1963 when, after the production of his first play, called "War," Van Itallie joined the Open Theater.

" 'War' involved actors improvising, so when I met Joe, our ideas were already converging," Van Itallie said. "We thought we could break new ground in the spectrum. That was the center of the '60s movement. I felt a center of energy at the heart of things in that loft on 24th Street with a company of eight. We had no money, no nothing."

It was also the era of Ellen Stewart's La Mama, Caffe Cino, Theatre Genesis and the Judson Church, among others. "In the '50s you had the beat poets," Van Itallie recalls. "Later in the '60s it was the hippies and rock. But in between, the energy and the attention were in the theater."

Articles and treatises on the last days of the Open Theater almost always attribute its 1973 demise to Chaikin's fear of becoming "institutionalized." But another more fundamental reason is simply that he feared his heart was about to give out.

Sometime during Chaikin's last heart surgery, in 1984, he suffered a stroke. When he came to, he not only reawakened to the fear of the time bomb in his chest, he now had to come to grips with a neurological malady that paralyzed the right side of his body and shut down his ability to speak and comprehend words--a savage irony in the life of an artist dedicated to finding words so poetically tight-fitted to the thoughts and feelings they expressed that they took on a musical, totemic resonance.

The sealing off of Chaikin's body from his expressive impulses was an almost supernatural raising of the stakes in a game he's been playing most of his life, and which partly centers on the proposition that "since none of us is wholly self-invented, what is it that antedates our flesh and shapes us in spite of ourselves?"

Chaikin has worked hard to resuscitate the portions of his body and brain that were more dead than alive, and he's resumed his career. Though his speech is still seriously impaired, he can read aloud clearly and communicate. He's been concert-reading a collaborative piece (written with Sam Shepard) called "War in Heaven"; he's directed a compilation of Adrienne Kennedy works called "Voyages" in New York and Washington's Kennedy Center; he's visited Israel to work with Arab and Israeli actors; and he's recently worked with the Traveling Jewish Theatre, and the Magic Theater and Vaudeville Nouveau in San Francisco.

Still, he's in no shape to get on a stage and nightly play out a role whose physical and emotional strains are evident, even in rehearsal, in the robust, high-tension performance of John Glover--who is considerably younger than the 51-year-old Chaikin, whose surrogate role he portrays.

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