Enigmatic Meaning Emerges as Motif Of 50th Arts Festival

Absurd theater in 'Time and the Room' contrasts with conventional 'Uncle Vanya'

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

"Go away, then," says Astrov to Yeliena in the last throes of Anton Chekhov's "Uncle Vanya." Then he adds, with a sardonic, resigned irony: "Finita la commedia!"

The comedy has now indeed ended: The Edinburgh International Festival No. 50 is over; the crowds have all gone away.

While some Edinburghers may be sighing with relief, no doubt others have that emptied feeling that assails one not only at the end but most of the time in Chekhov's plays.

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But the emptiness - in Chekhov and in Edinburgh - is tinged with elation based on survival and continuance.

In this year's first-ever opening festival lecture, Prof. George Steiner mischievously suggested that now, when things are going well, might be a good time to bring the festival to an end. No such termination is, of course, remotely considered. No. 51 will undoubtedly happen in 1997.

German director Peter Stein's production of the Russian play, performed by Italians in Italian with English subtitles, came near the end of the festival. It was a cross-cultural, international production if ever there was one - perfect for Edinburgh.

It also happened that this "Uncle Vanya" was one of the most memorable - and yet one of the most conventional - of this year's contributions (to the prestigious main festival program as opposed to that of the determinedly not prestigious, phenomenally large "Fringe").

An experienced festivalgoer along the row from me at "Uncle Vanya" remarked: "This is the first piece of real theater this year, if you know what I mean."

I knew what he meant.

It was a four-act play, a classic, directed with no clever tricks and above all with an intense and sensitive faithfulness to the playwright's intentions. As Stein made clear to his fans in one of the illuminating "Festival Insights," his admiration for Chekhov is extreme. (These "insights," which have been a distinct feature of this festival, are hour-long sessions in which key festival participants share ideas with an audience.) And yet Stein's actors seemed far from being the mere puppets of either Chekhov or the director.

The Chekhovian picture of human life does not make much sense of it. And "Uncle Vanya" has moments that are surrealism in embryo, hovering in a limbo of absurdism neither tragic nor comic. Stein's production treads this uncertain tightrope knowingly, leaving the audience with many questions and few answers.

'What does it mean?'

Throughout this festival, the recurrent question that seemed to engage directors and performers in "insights," TV interviews, and program notes was "What does it mean?" The assumption behind this question is that music, dance, drama, and art must have meaning. But the insistent answer was that the only meaning possible is a lack-of-meaning.

If there was a theme to emerge this year, it was more than anything this.

Consider: From Nottingham Playhouse came a (rare) production of a play by German writer Botho Strauss called "Time and the Room." The "room" is constant (more or less), but time is all over the place. Not only are the characters persistently confused about time, but the audience even more so.

Underneath the considerable humor of this latter-day instance of absurd theater lies, perhaps, some sort of theory of chance and chaos. But this clever, if rather Anglicized version, invites the audience simply to enjoy the nonsensicality for its own sake: Seeking explanation would be a final absurdity. On the level of the inexplicable, much of this episodic piece of theater seemed to make perfect sense.

No less irrationally disconnected was the inexplicable - though attackingly emotive - Catalan "L'Esplndida vergonya del fet mal fet" of the festival's second week. At least one member of the audience complained that "the program notes were less than useless" (hoping presumably for the kind of comfortingly explicatory commentaries in the programs for most of the classical concerts and recitals). Again the director and players could only suggest that meaning was beside the point.

And so it went. Director Robert Wilson, talking in a TV interview about his second production this year, Houston Opera's "Four Saints in Three Acts," stated that he had no idea what it was about and that, for a start, there were four acts, not three, and some 20 saints rather than four.

At every festival there are certain productions about which everyone raves that are sold out. You sometimes remember festivals as much for what was regretfully missed as for what you wished you had not attended. "Four Saints" was the former for me this year, though a few fragmented excerpts on TV offered a taste of it. Ah well.

I did get seats, however, for one Fringe production that was greatly popular - "Slava Snowshow." The main performer here was the Russian Slava Polunin; he was accompanied by the Brazilian Angela de Castro. Their guise as clowns (though de Castro is more like a penguin in an unwieldy trench coat) is misleading if the audience is expecting the noisy knockabouts that customarily go along with the makeup, red nose, and scattered hair.

This new "clowning" is very slow, subtle, generally understated, and even quiet. It is, perhaps a little self-consciously, an inventive exploration and revival of a traditional performance art. "My view of the art of clowning," Polunin writes in his program note, "is born on the wave of ideas from Stanislavski, Meyerhold, Artaud, Beckett, Bausch and Wilson."

An interconnected scene

Circles within circles: One cannot go momentarily over to the Fringe without bumping into some figures from the "official" festival - where Wilson, as mentioned, was all present and correct in two productions; Pina Bausch, German choreographer, was represented by her interpretation of Gluck's "Iphigenie auf Tauris," opera translated into marvellous dance; and where Peter Stein, director of "Uncle Vanya," has not forgotten the debt of all Chekhov directors to Stanislavski, who was responsible for the first Chekhov productions.

So what is the meaning of arts festivals? Perhaps Astrov, at the end of "Uncle Vanya," touches on it:

"It is strange somehow .... Here we've known one another, and all at once for some reason ... we shall never see each other again. That's the way with everything in this world ...."

Well, not quite.

Not only do some of the same faces return year after year in Edinburgh audiences, but so more and more do the directors. The choreographer Mark Morris is the most obvious: Next year will be his sixth in succession. Peter Stein has now come to three festivals, as has Canadian director Robert Lepage.

The cancellation this year of his "Elsinore" was described rather starkly by The Scotsman newspaper, in its round-up editorial on the 1996 festival, as "unforgivable." But it is hard to imagine that he, too, will not come back next year.

In this enigmatic and puzzling world, some predictable fixtures do have a certain attraction.

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