Festivals guide US audiences toward international theater fare

Ever since the Olympic Arts festival in Los Angeles two years ago, American audiences have been developing an increasingly global cultural palate. This year two international theater festivals -- one in Chicago earlier this spring, the other still underway in Baltimore -- have brought several dozen theater companies to the United States from around the world. Dario Fo, an Italian political theater artist, and his wife, Franca Rame, recently made an East Coast tour. Several troupes are in the US for the first time.

The Chicago International Theater Festival, the first in that city, featured a small but respected coterie of international companies, including Britain's National Theatre, Japan's Suzuki Company of Toga, and Israel's Haifa Municipal Theatre.

In Baltimore, the Theatre of Nations festival opened on a larger scale last week with an array of companies from a full dozen countries. The two-week festival, sponsored by the International Theatre Institute (ITI), a cultural organization funded by the United Nations, cut a broader, more eclectic cultural swath with companies from Brazil, India, Northern Ireland, Poland, and Sweden. The festival also raised significantly more political hackles.

The last-minute exclusion from the ITI festival of Great Britain's National Theatre production of a drama based on George Orwell's anti-Stalinist ``Animal Farm,'' after protests from the Soviet Union, added controversy to the festival, which is being held in North America for the first time. After Wole Soyinka, Nigerian playwright and ITI president, officially struck the play from the festival, the air was thick with political caterwauling. Sir Peter Hall, National Theatre director, called the decision ``craven.'' The United States Information Agency threatened to withdraw part of its initial festival funding. In addition, the on-again, off-again appearance by Czechoslovakian theater artist Bolek Polivka, the unexpectedly early departure of Dario Fo, and the cancellation of some performances by New York's experimental Shaliko Company added to the cultural melee.

While the most publicized part of the festival was the ignominious treatment of ``Animal Farm,'' an unexceptional production [reviewed on these pages June 23], which opened unofficially but with plenty of fanfare and a fistful of stars, different cultural rewards attended the other festival entries. Not the least of these were performances by Fo and, to a lesser extent, his wife and fellow actor, Franca Rame.

Fo and Rame were in the US for a two-month tour, with special approval by the State Department, which had previously barred the duo for their controversial politics. Fo again proved that he is a consummate theater artist. Actor, playwright, director, Fo charms his audience with his bulbous, malleable body while challenging them with his potentially abrasive politics and unorthodox artistry -- his use of a nonsense language he calls grammelot. Rame, a respected performer in her own right, is a potent combination of Charo and Betty Friedan. If her feisty monologues were top heavy with somewhat outdated feminist politics, they commanded respect for the integrity of the performances. Both Fo and Rame were aided by their amiable translator, American professor Ron Jenkins.

American entries included performer Fred Curchack and Theatre Pardes (formerly the Traveling Jewish Theatre), basically different but having in common their use of music, puppets, and storytelling techniques. The most impressive US entry was choregrapher-director-dancer Martha Clarke's ``The Garden of Earthly Delights.'' The hour-long work combines dance, music, and amazing aerial acrobatics to illuminate the famed Hieronymus Bosch triptych.

Among the other companies making debuts in the festival were Jordcirkus, the respected Swedish theater collective, and the Czech mime/comic actor Polivka. Both relied on minimal staging and inventive techniques to dramatize their unique concerns. Jordcirkus, whose repertoire ranges from street theater and cabaret to a saga based on Gabriel Garc'ia M'arquez's novel ``One Hundred Years of Solitude,'' performed one of the festival's few children's productions, ``Little Princess.'' Mr. Polivka, whose appearance at the festival was more than once in political question, hilariously and provocatively probed the distinction between appearance and reality in ``The Jester and the Queen.''

Poland's Gardzienice Theatre, whose productions are based on Polish village folklore, vented what was surely the festival's most energetic if mystic production, ``The Life of Archpriest Avvakum,'' based on a 17th-century Russian autobiography. The Theatre of Nations festival closes Sunday.

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