Political theater's middle ground

'How It All Began', Adapted from the autobiography of Michael (Bommi) Baumann. A Dodger Theater presentation, directed by Des McAnuff. There isn't much political theater these days, and what there is usually comes from troupes who espouse an opinion on some current controversy. Historical theater is more popular, dealing with matters that are safely lodged in the past.

But there's a middle ground that's trickier to deal with -- treating issues that are no longer immanent, yet are recent enough to raise strong memories and perhaps strong emotions. "How It All Began" at the Public/Other Stage Theater fits this category, recounting the life and times of a real- life West Berlin terrorist whose career flourished during the 1960s.

While terrorism is still very much with us, it no longer bears the stamp of the '60s, when social unrest was a flamboyant as it was turbulent. Michael (Bommi) Baumann was a child of his time, equally interested in politics and drugs, equally influenced by radicalism and rock 'n' roll. The rebel Rudi Dutschke captured his imagination, Baumann eagerly volunteers in the play, because "he's like the Rolling Stones!"

"How It All Began," adapted from Baumann's autobiography, follows him from his arrival on the radical-youth scene to his recen arrest by West German authorities, after 10 years of "underground" hiding. The play touches on his experiments with drugs and sex, and traces his political development -- from his early rejection of communism through his growing fascination with anarchism, and concluding with his belated decision that "love" is more effective than "violence."

The play is most effective when sketching Baumann's quirky personality, illustrating the roots of his anarchistic theory in his anarchistic behavior: Sheer high spirits may have been Baumann's biggest problem, outlandishly misdirected as they were. Also of interest are Baumann's associations with a regular Who's Who of radical leaders, including Dutschke, Gudrun Ensslin, Andreas Baader, and Ulrike Meinhof. Even Eldridge Cleaver takes a bow.

Unfortunately, the show never gets below the surface of its subject. We get to know the characters, their aspirations, and the trouble they cause. But the larger and deeper issues are never probed -- the underlying tensions of the period, the self-propelling "folie a deux" that developed between the radicals and the authorities, even the special psychology of the young terrorists. Dwelling on the obvious, "How It All Began" never really discovers how it all began. Instead, we get a neat and frequently involving summary of today's conventional wisdom on the subject of rebellious youth -- a "wisdom" based less on insight than on relief that the phenomenon seems to have quieted down for the time being.

Directed by Des McAnuff and edited by John Palmer, the show is based not only on Baumann's book, but on all kinds of documentary material collected by members of Group X of the stage division of the Juilliard School, who developed "How It All Began" in a series of workshop and rehearsals. some of these materials are included in the production, projected onto a screen behind the performers. Rock music, from the Beatles to the Velvet Underground, also plays a part, though more as punctuation than as commentary. The cast is commendably versatile and energetic, giving "How It All Began" a momentum it might otherwise lack. Artistic adventures

Meanwhile, to find some of the more adventurous artistic experiences, you have to venture off the beaten path. recently, for instance, a thoroughly unpredictable evening -- featuring some highly respected names -- was to be found in a church near Washington Square in Greenwich Village, where a benefit for the Tibet Center took place.

Featured on the program were Mabou Mines, regarded by many as the leading experimental theater group in the United States. Introduced by members JoAnne Akalaitis and Bill raymond, they performed a modest "radio play" for three characters, about an intellectual held hostage by an orangutan. Not major stuff , but light of heart, and acted with gusto.

Then one of the performers, David Warrilow, brought the evening to greater heights with a "sneak preview" of a brandnew theater piece by Samuel Beckett called "Ohio impromptu" because it was written for a symposium held in that state. A characteristic work, it features one speaking character who delivers a sad and fragmented monologue to a silent companion. Warrilow, who is known for his interpretations of Beckett, delivered the spare speeches with resonance and feeling.

Prior to the Mabou Mines portion, the first half of the program provided a quick overview of certain currents in contemporary classical music. Jon Gibson played a provocative work called "Cycles," wherein deliberately dissonant blocks of "close harmony" build into a mountain of insistent sound. Paul Alexander played an organ piece with a technological touch, and Philip Glass offered an expansive organ solo marked by his usual techniques of repetitive structure and unexpectedly shifting texture. And young composer Richard Munson participated in his own Tarantella, a fabulously entertaining quartet that maps out a congenial meeting ground for traditional tastes and avant-garde sensibilities.

Coincidentally, the gifted JoAnne Akalaitis -- one of the evening's hosts and a founder of Mabou Mines -- is also represented these days at the Interart Theater on the West Side of Manhattan. She is the director of "Request concert, " a play by Franz Xavier Kroetz that opened months ago, has been extended a couple of times, and is now scheduled to run through July 7. Joan MacIntosh plays the sole character, a woman who comes home from work (or somewhere) and wordlessly watches TV, has dinner, listens to the radio, does a bit of needlepoint, prepares for bed, and finally -- in the last moments of the show -- expresses pent-up desperation over her own circumscribed life.

"Request Concert" is a fascinating, production despite its plotless structure and the rather stale shock of its climax, which recalls -- among other works -- Chantal Akerman's exploratory film "Jeanne Dielman, 26 rue de Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles." Compellingly performed by Miss MacIntosh, and directed by Miss Akalaitis with a precision that is equaled only by its gracefulness, it is a bold and affecting experience. The designers were Manuel Lutgenhorst and Douglas E. Ball -- Lutgenhorst also being responsible for the current La Mama production of "The Panther," a "madrigal opera" by Philip Glass.

While "The Panther" is touched with mystery growing from its complicated visual setting and its layered use of performers, however -- not to mention its haunting music -- "Request Concert" is equally mysterious by virtue of its astonoshing adherence to everyday detail. Less can indeed be more, as Lutgenhorst, Akalaitis, and MacIntosh demonstrate in this small green of a production.

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