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CONFESSIONS OF A FESTIVAL GOER : Sometimes Too Much Culture Is a Pain in the Back

October 04, 1987|BARBARA ISENBERG

I confess. I only made it through two-thirds of "The Mahabharata," Peter Brook's mammoth stage homage to the historical Indian poem. After nearly six hours of uncomfortable bleacher-style seating and just 30 minutes worth of access to bathrooms, food and drink, I finished my unappealing box supper and refused to go back into the theater.

Although transported by the opening section's strong visual images, poetic language and engrossing tales, I grew weary during the second section. My head began to droop and my eyes wandered continually from the stage to my watch and back again. As the exits seemed further and further beyond my grasp, I ached to see sunlight, the sky, a ladies' room.

I don't know if my weariness grew from the play--I sat through 8 1/2 hours of "Nicholas Nickleby" and left sad to see it end--but suspect, rather, that it sprung from my seeing the extravaganza at Raleigh Studios. Sitting rigid in my seat, so close to the next person that if I moved she had to move, I felt like I was in training for est.

Yet leaving was not easy. There were unresolved plot lines I wouldn't see resolved, and there was anger at my body for not adjusting to deprivations of all sorts. And there was almost a sense of betrayal at leaving behind a community of friends and fellow-sufferers.

From arts festivals to tennis tournaments, we form temporal communities with the people around us. The longer the event, the thicker the bond. We communicate, sometimes silently, as we pass food or drinks back and forth, move aside for people to pass, look sheepish when caught yawning. We talk in the bar and bathroom lines and exchange pleasantly banal remarks while applauding, cheering or standing to stretch. We even smile at strangers now and then.

Sometimes communities spring up spontaneously, like one of Ruben Blades' fans who congoed up and down the aisles of the Hollywood Bowl during last summer's Playboy Jazz Festival. Other audience ensembles start small, then get wildly inflated by television and film coverage, as occurs during such regular events as the Oscars or such fleeting moments as the opening ceremonies of the Olympics, the Statue of Liberty weekend, the Pope's U.S. visit.

We sojourners to Melrose and Van Ness for "The Mahabharata," the multimillion-dollar centerpiece of the just-ended Los Angeles Festival, clearly underwent a communal experience. Dragging in our cushions, bedroom slippers, and cleverly concealed snacks, we were united not only in experiencing Brook's grand vision but in taking on yet another demanding Los Angeles Festival event. Given the festival's prodigious fare, not to mention the hundreds of Fringe offerings all over town, the city's "24 days of culture shock" should have been subtitled "culture till you drop."

I noticed many of the same faces at event after event and presume that mine isn't the only car in town thick with festival programs. Trudging from the Los Angeles Theatre Center downtown to Hollywood's Raleigh Studios (and those awful padded bleachers again), then back downtown to the Music Center night after night after night, I thought this was a cultural community that surely breakfasted on Wheaties.

Given my festival overdose, not to mention early departure from the "Mahabharata," I prepared ahead to make an early exit from Strindberg's "Miss Julie" on the festival's last night. The play was in Swedish and, although it was directed by Ingmar Bergman, I was certain that I'd be lusting for freedom long before the final curtain. I explained to the parking lot attendant that I could certainly block a car or two as I'd be leaving early, then did some heavy negotiating for an aisle seat.

But something happened. An hour went by, then another. I couldn't leave. It was just too good. Bergman's actors rarely uttered words unaccompanied by gestures, and gestures carry no language restrictions. Their pacing, strutting, rage and other passions were visually mesmerizing. We in the sold-out Doolittle Theatre audience were traveling the world without leaving Hollywood. The people onstage were the visitors, not us.

As Bergman's players finished the last of many curtain calls and we all headed back to our cars and homes, I recalled a story that the festival's departing director, Robert Fitzpatrick, once told me about his bout with "festival disease." It was in France, and the doctor advised laying off culture for a few days and drinking plenty of Vichy water. The Vichy water part should be easy.

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