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Festval: A Celebration Of The Arts : Of Tents & Touring : One For The Road

August 16, 1987|DAN SULLIVAN | Dan Sullivan is The Times' drama critic.

The point of bringing outside shows to town is to show what the standards of the big world are . . . Touring companies help us to see that the outsider doesn't have horns

Two images of theater: A great stone amphitheater cut into a hillside in Greece, and a tent show setting up in a vacant lot.

Which strikes you as the truer? The amphitheater suggests the community gathering to consider a serious ethical issue, presented in the guise of a "play." A very respectable logo indeed.

But since theater at bottom is play--even when it's serious play--I'd pick the tent show.

There's something magic about a traveling show. We're drawn to it precisely because it doesn't represent the community. The calliope brings news from the outside world. For two hours, we'll tap into a new energy.

At least that's the hope. Watch Prince Hamlet brighten up when Polonius tells him that the players are arrived. Finally, some action around here!

Theater is a visitation. The Greeks knew it. They began their drama festivals by towing a statue of Dionysus into the arena on a cart--barnstorming from Olympus, as it were. Their actors toured all over the Mediterranean. The road winds back 2,500 years.

For centuries it was the only home that theater had, as witness the custom of burying actors by the crossroads. Moliere and his company toured for 17 years. Shakespeare and his men would hit the road whenever plague shut down the Globe, and some scholars think that the reason "Macbeth" is so short is that the script we have is a tab version for the provinces.

By the 19th Century, actors could literally tour the world. Think of those grand old troupers from "Nicholas Nickleby," Mr. and Mrs. Vincent Crummles, preparing to wow them in the colonies. "The Americans are much devoted to grand gesture and the melodrama, and I've heard, on quite the best authority, that they'll pay anything!"

Alas, the return engagement of "Nicholas" to America last year was not a wild success. The trouble with the road is that you can die on it. (Eleanora Duse did , of pneumonia, in Pittsburgh.)

Therefore, when the players come to town for the Los Angeles Festival, let them--as Prince Hamlet says--be well bestowed. And let us not sulk that they're here.

The '84 Olympic Arts Festival was resented by some local theater folk. As late as last year, certain producers were complaining that the festival had dried up the local audience.

It didn't occur to them that the festival had wised up the local audience. The Theatre du Soleil's "Richard II" and the Piccolo Teatro di Milano's "The Tempest" and the Goodman Theatre's "Comedy of Errors," for example, put Equity Waiver Shakespeare to shame.

On the other hand, we discovered that the National Theatre of Greece didn't have any more of a clue as to how to do "Oedipus the King" than we did. The point of bringing outside shows to town is to show what the standards of the big world are. The exchange rate doesn't always favor the foreigners.

This year's festival--beginning with an actual tent show, the Cirque du Soleil, performing in Little Tokyo--won't have the theatrical impact of the '84 festival. It's shorter and it's less various, and many of the theater pieces are small-cast shows: "Miss Julie" from the Royal Dramatic Theatre of Sweden, for instance.

However, the director of Miss Julie" is distinctly world-class: Ingmar Bergman. If Bergman and a Stockholm cast don't know how to do Strindberg, then we really will be confused.

"Bopha!" from South Africa's Market Theatre will only have a squad of three, but if they're as alive as the actors who did Percy Mtwa's previous play, "Woza Albert," a whole world of hurt and hope will be there.

The Wooster Group represents the world of New York avant-garde theater. Its piece, "The Road to Immortality: Part Two (. . . Just the High Points . . .)" reweaves images from the 1960s into a "densely layered theatrical text," whose meaning is up to the viewer.

The great set piece of the festival will be Peter Brook's marathon production of the Indian epic, "The Mahabarata." Brook's headquarters is Paris, but for 20 years he has taken actors all over the world, trying to soak up what each region has discovered about the roots of theater.

Brook's company brought an African piece, "The Ik," to UCLA in 1976. Earlier they played a Persian work, "The Conference of the Birds," at UC Santa Barbara. "The Mahabarata" should open a whole world of classical Indian literature to us.

The "road " here can be likened to a river, bringing us precious stuff that we would otherwise have to travel thousands of miles to see. Some people find this an offensive notion. Would you jack up the Taj Mahal, put it on a barge and tour it?

No; but Brook's production doesn't pretend to be the real thing. It's an introduction to "The Mahabarata," a Western response to it. With luck it will lead the viewer to visits its source, just as the RSC's "Nicholas Nickleby" led many people to read Dickens' novel.

This isn't cultural vandalism. It's education. One of its happiest effects is to de-exoticize the work in question. We stop thinking of it as a icon and begin to see it as an attempt to deal with questions that all humans wrestle with: Why do we die, how should we live?

We also learn to relax with the work. As an example, the American visits of the Grand Kabuki over the last few years haven't lessened our respect for Kabuki as a discipline. But they have helped us to to enjoy the flashy side of it, to acknowledge that Kabuki isn't just a rite but also a show.

Finally, touring companies help us to see that the outsider doesn't have horns. That's increasingly necessary in a world where stereotypes can kill--dirty Arab, bloody Protestant, filthy capitalist.

"South of the Mountain," by Kentucky's Roadside Theatre, for example, is full of songs and stories (some tall) about men and women who live in Appalachia. But there isn't a redneck in it.

Meet you at the tent.

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