New York — During almost every moment of his new theater piece, ``Let the Artists Die,'' writer and director Tadeusz Kantor hovers at the edge of the stage area, watching the action and throwing out occasional cues. He gazes intently at everything, sometimes wandering into the wings but returning a few seconds later. The odd thing is that he rarely seems pleased by what he sees. His face stays somber, although his fingers twitch to the funereal music and his arms occasionally rise in grim excitement over some grand gesture from the other actors.
What is he looking at? Images clustered around the themes of memory and death, all conjured from his own imagination, which appears to be a dank sort of place. Dressed in motley costumes and burdened with symbolic props, his characters enact a stately nightmare drawn from fantasies, recollections, and fragments of history. An old woman heads a ghostly parade on a skeletal horse; identical twins do a Marx Brothers mirror-image routine; a hanged man sings phrases of a jaunty cabaret song; and so on, in th e same surreal vein.
This ``revue'' is the latest production of Kantor's renowned company, Theatre Center Cricot 2 of Krakow, Poland. Its US premi`ere took place recently at La Mama Experimental Theatre Club, which has hosted previous visits by the troupe. Some critics have greeted the engagement as one of the year's most important events.
From his vantage point on the rim of the action, Kantor plays a character called I, identified as ``a real person'' and ``the Prime Mover'' of the piece. Other actors play ``I -- Dying'' and ``I -- When I Was Six,'' who rub elbows with people called ``The Author'' and ``You Know Who.'' Additional characters range from ``The Dirty Fellow'' and ``The Late Mr. X'' to a pair of executioners and no fewer than eight generals.
With so many folks named I swarming across the stage, it stands to reason that ``Let the Artists Die'' is a deeply personal piece, if not downright solipsistic. Founded on intuition rather than reason, it seems to have burbled up helter-skelter from the lower reaches of Kantor's mind, filling the stage with dreamlike events that justify the odd phrases in his printed guide to the production: ``a circus rehearsal of agony'' and ``the phantoms flee,'' to quote a couple at random. Some scenes appeal to the
intellect, offering dim echoes of historical persons and episodes. But most aim for the heart rather than the brain, bypassing logic in a direct assault on our senses and feelings.
In his wholly instinctive methods, Kantor resembles such currently hot stage artists as Robert Wilson and Pina Bausch, among others. At its most inspired moments, ``Let the Artists Die'' approaches the hallucinatory splendor of Wilson's epics and surpasses the compulsive emotionalism of some Bausch pieces. Kantor doesn't maintain the intensity of his ideas over the full course of this show, however. ``Let the Artists Die'' is stunning in many of its parts, and its sincerity as an act of self-explorat ion is unquestionable. But it doesn't succeed as the feat of sustained visionary insight that it sets out to be.