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Drama on a Cosmic Scale. A small Oregon company's audacious staging of a neglected epic proves that modern theater needn't be small-minded. CELTIC MYTH AS RETOLD BY YEATS

By Phillip JohnsonSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / April 24, 1989


SOME people believe the mission of drama is to explore the cosmic questions about human identity and destiny, and for such people Portland's Storefront Theater is offering something extraordinary. To commemorate the 50th anniversary of the death of William Butler Yeats, the Storefront has audaciously mounted the visionary Irish poet's five-play cycle based on the mythic hero Cuchulain (pronounced koo-HOO-linn). The Portland project is only the second professional production of the full cycle to be presented in America and the first one produced outside New York City.

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The Cuchulain cycle adds up to heroic theater on several levels. Its themes are universal, adapted from the Celtic hero tales that may have been the source of the Arthurian legends, with Cuchulain as the prototype for Sir Gawain and his uncle, the High King Conchubar, the model for King Arthur.

The production also makes daring use of storytelling techniques from several continents and of a different director and theatrical style for each of the plays. And the audience, too, may feel that a degree of courage is required for them to sit through four hours (with only two intermissions) of what for all but the most intrepid stage buffs will be a radically different theater experience than they are accustomed to.

Their effort is well rewarded, however, with a production that is always intriguing and sometimes exhilarating, if not always entirely successful.

As one might expect, when a small company tackles so ambitious a project, the results are uneven. But since virtually every moment of every play represents a risk taken, carping over the shortcomings would be like complaining that Columbus's first map of the New World wasn't to scale. For what unfolds on stage is the discovery, or rediscovery, of a lost theatrical world.

The actor/director who launched this epic in stagecraft is Keith Scales, a familiar figure in Portland theater for some 20 years now. The London-born Mr. Scales, with rough-hewn features and a manner of speaking that's full of drama even in conversation, conceived the project seven years ago, after being invited to stage the first play from the cycle, ``At the Hawk's Well,'' for the Portland Poetry Festival.

His research for that production led him to the comparative-mythology section at the library, where he read about Yeats's impassioned efforts over many decades to reshape theater to meet what the poet perceived to be the needs of his time.

Yeats thought theater should provide ``the intoxication of the imagination of the world.'' He believed it could even help unify Irish culture by presenting a common symbolic world that would bridge over the quarrels and factionalism dividing his country. In all, he wrote 26 poetic, ritualistic dramas, and he helped found Dublin's famous Abbey Theatre.

The core of Yeats's theatrical work dealt with the greatest hero of Celtic myth, Cuchulain, a figure he hoped would inspire his countrymen as ``a symbol of creative joy without fear,'' Scales says. ``The Cuchulain cycle is almost a clinical example of the archetype of the hero-journey. The plays are telling a story that everybody knows, because it's buried in everyone's subconscious.''

Yeats wrote the plays intermittently during the latter half of his life. The earliest in the cycle, ``On Baile's Strand,'' was penned in 1904, after the poet had visited Stratford-upon-Avon, and it is intentionally Shakespearean in character. This play, chronicling Cuchulain's rage after he unknowingly kills his own son, eventually became the middle play in the sequence.

The next play, ``The Green Helmet,'' written in 1910, was patterned after ancient sagas in a style Yeats called ``heroic farce.'' ``Hawk's Well'' and ``The Only Jealousy of Emer,'' the first and fourth works in the cycle, were written in 1917 and 1919, during a period when the playwright was intrigued with Japanese Noh drama. The concluding piece, ``The Death of Cuchulain,'' was written shortly before Yeats's own death in 1939. ``I think he put everything he knew into it,'' Scales says.

Scales had just left Portland for Seattle in search of wider acting opportunities when a grant from the Oregon Arts Commission enabled him to travel to Ireland to study Yeats. When he returned to Portland, he was able to persuade Storefront to tackle the daunting Yeats cycle, and to draw other people from the city's theatrical community into the venture.