Dubliners sparkle in a lackluster parade of visiting theater troupes. N.Y. ARTS FESTIVAL

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CRITICS dismissed it as a non-event, a dueling ground for corporate sponsors, an unfocused corraling of already planned artistic happenings. This was the rap on the First New York International Festival of the Arts, an $8 million, two-decades-in-the-making, 350-event celebration of 20th-century music, dance, theater, film, video, circuses, comedy acts, and symposia - some of them world premi`eres. Yet, in the nation's arts capital, would anyone notice? - phone-book-thick press kit notwithstanding. The spare, by comparison, 14-event Los Angeles Arts Festival, last year's extravaganza, featured the newsmaking American debut of Peter Brook's stage epic ``The Mahabharata.'' No such crown jewel capped New York's festivities, particularly among the drama offerings, which few pretended were primo and many considered peculiar. (What was arguably the most significant stage work during the festival, Ingmar Bergman's controversial and sexually charged ``Hamlet,'' was not actually included in it, since Shakespeare had the misfortune of working in the wrong century. In fact, the festival's biggest theater event, the Soviet Union's Maly Dramatic Theatre's eight-hour, 59-actor staging of ``Brothers and Sisters,'' was cancelled after ticket sales slumped and festival funds dwindled. The Maly's replacement production, the less-impressive ``Stars in the Morning Sky,'' was slipped in as an extension of the company's run in Toronto.

Suddenly Dublin's Gate Theatre productions - Sean O'Casey's ``Juno and the Paycock,'' and a one-man dramatization of Beckett's prose by Barry McGovern - ascended to the top of must-see lists.

Justifiably so. Particularly when the American revivals - O'Neill's ``Long Day's Journey into Night,'' and ``Ah, Wilderness!'' and Williams's ``Night of the Iguana'' - weighed in as flawed, frequently sentimentalized reworkings, despite some big-name stars.

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Direction by Joe Dowling, one of Dublin's most acclaimed theater artists, and a stageful of superb leads anchor O'Casey's classic, which could, in less sure hands, veer into bathos or, in the merry second act, balmy mugging.

Beginning with the set, Frank Hallinan Flood's dim, tumbledown Boyle flat, with its dirt-streaked windows and cobwebbed curtains, is an unsentimental embodiment of a Dublin tenement house circa 1920. It is the waning days of the Irish Civil War, and the external strife is felt in the domestic destruction of the Boyle household. Donal McCann's Captain Jack Boyle, the strutting ``paycock'' of the play's title, is a self-deceived and deceiving rogue, whose devotion to the dole and drop of whiskey supersedes his concern for his family, overseen by Geraldine Plunkett's indomitable Juno Boyle.

The two are a quintessential match, enduring figures on the Irish social landscape. And Dowling's direction, illuminating all the crevices, keeps our allegiances from settling on one character or another until the very end. McCann, who played Gabriel Byrne in John Huston's film ``The Dead,'' gives a psychologically canny performance of a man more at odds with himself than with his society. Plunkett's Juno is an all-too-human blend of savior and shrew. Kavanagh gives play its emotional capstone

If their two children, Mary and Johnny, who, despite a generational advantage, are hopelessly caught in their homeland's relentless religious and political vise, are less noticeable, the fault lies partly with O'Casey and partly with Rosemary Fine's and Joe Savino's performances, which are outshone by John Kavanagh's and Maureen Potter's exceptional supporting work. Ms. Potter, a longtime vaudeville performer, lends crackling verisimilitude to the role of Maisie Madigan, the good-time neighbor who is as quick with a song as with a searing ripost. But it is Mr. Kavanagh's sly portrayal of Joxer Daly that pushes this traditional buddy role into a fully realized character study that becomes the production's emotional capstone. Kavanagh twists Joxer's smarmy conviviality, with his reiterated ``dairlin's,'' from harmless blarney into an insidious and infectious duplicity.

The Gate's second festival entry, Barry McGovern's one-man show ``I'll Go On,'' is an acting tour de force that blows the dust off Beckett's post-nuclear Angst and returns to the Irish Nobel Prize-winner's dense prose writings, a measure of the fist-waving Dubliner's colloquial cabal. An adaptation of the novels ``Molloy,'' ``Malone Dies,'' and ``The Unnamable,'' (by McGovern, with Beckett scholar Gerry Dukes), ``I'll Go On'' is an intensely human portrait of the classic Beckett protagonist, a vengeful Everyman who is as unforgiving of his mother as of metaphysics. Under Colm 'O Braian's sage direction, McGovern, a foremost Beckett interpreter, whipsaws his spare frame into a controlled frenzy as he spews forth the author's evocative language, culling fresh humor from the oft-told sucking stones story and finding new uplift in the ``The Unnamable's'' famous bitter line: ``You must go on, I can't go on, I'll go on.''

A more qualified if no less provocative success was Tadeusz Kantor's ``I Shall Never Return,'' performed briefly here by the director's Obie Award-winning Polish troupe, Cricot 2 Theater Company. Mr. Kantor's bitter, dreamlike reverie was a sort of flip side to ``I'll Go On,'' a skillfully shaded visual, rather than verbal, exorcism of personal and political demons, ranging from childhood horrors to Holocaust visions. ``I Shall Never Return,'' which featured the director playing himself on stage - a silent rebuke to a parade of grotesque events performed with Fellini-esque energy - has been criticized in Poland for its narcissism. Indeed, some of the play's denser images are impenetrably personal. But others - the goosestepping violinists, a hung effigy, the caged woman - strike such universal and imagistic chords of militarism and debasement that the lack of an English translation (except in a written handout) hardly mattered.

Maly company's last-minute entry

Greater problems of translation beset the Maly Drama Theater's last-minute entry, ``Stars in the Morning Sky,'' Alexander Galin's portrayal of Moscow prostitutes shipped into internal exile during the 1980 Olympic games. Performed in Russian with a simultaneous English translation, the work nonetheless demands close scrutiny of its lengthy printed synopsis to clarify situation and character. Galin's text and Lev Dodin's direction should have sufficed. Fine performances from the seven-member cast do manage to convey both parochial political concerns and a universal longing for transcendence and acceptance.

The festival continues through July 11, but several events have extended runs.

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