'Stages' celebrates joy of theater

A century of theater explored in 'Changing Stages'; emotionally charged 'Women'

"The art of the theater is ... an art that can never dissolve its reliance on the scale of the human figure, the sound of the human voice, and the disposition of mankind to tell each other stories," says Sir Richard Eyre in Changing Stages, the book he wrote to accompany the six-part series on PBS (Sundays, Aug. 26, 9-11 p.m., check local listings).

He remarks that it is as absurd to represent a stage performance on TV as it is to put a ventriloquist on the radio - but he does it anyway. And a good job it is. "Changing Stages" is a rough-hewn history of 20th-century theater in England and the United States - as a professional director and manager sees it.

The relationship between British (including Irish) and American theater is clear enough. There's not only the language base, but also a common set of religious and social idioms. But you can't talk about British and American theater without talking about Shakespeare - it's just not possible. Shakespeare gave us modern theater, so the first hour is devoted to him. And Eyre makes the point that it's a good thing we don't know much about the man, because then he would be subject to all kinds of irrelevant analysis. Yet oceans of prose have swept over the works of Shakespeare, and every production of one of his plays reflects the age in which it is produced.

Later, Anton Pavlovich Chekhov, Henrik Ibsen, Arthur Miller, Eugene O'Neill, Tennessee Williams, Harold Pinter, John Osborne, and George Bernard Shaw, among others, changed the world of theater again and again. Yet theater is both fleeting and human-scaled - unlike either the movies (bigger than life) or TV (smaller).

"A theater performance cannot be stored or recorded. It is live and unrepeatable, ephemeral even at its very greatest, melting away after the event like a snowman in the sun," Mr. Eyre writes.

In a recent interview, he talked about the very air of the theater as being charged with the audience's participation: "Because a group, a collective, is united by their enjoyment - that's when you know the theater works."

But theater audiences are less forgiving than film or TV audiences. No one says film is dead if they see a few bad movies. But pundits have been declaring the theater dead since film took on sound.

In the series, and in person, Eyre addresses the problem of the apparent "apartheid" of audiences - between those who can afford to go to the theater and those who cannot. His solution is publicly funded theater, which his colleague Julie Taymor (designer and director of "The Lion King") encourages as well.

"Reduce the seat prices," they both say. "Subsidy also allows continuity," says Eyre. "Subsidy nurtures the art form - allows artists to experiment and even to fail. There are important little theater groups working with very little money.... If you had a system of public funding, you would have more important plays."

But art does depend on genius, say both Eyre and Taymor. As Ms. Taymor, who appears in the film, declares: art is individual. In a recent interview in Pasadena, Calif., she said that in any given period of history there are only a few great artists. Still the opportunity must be there; there must be a receptivity to new work.

In her own work, Taymor thinks of the stage as a "sacred space," a space where transformation can occur, she says. That transformation can be literal - as when an elegant puppeteer becomes a jaguar, her own head attached by wires to the head of the puppet, making it move with her grace.

"I want to give the audience something they had no idea they wanted," she says. And she does. The stage version of "The Lion King," as so many reviewers and audiences have noted, is revelatory and moving. It's meant to appeal to everyone.

"One of the reasons art is a poetic-metaphorical medium," says Eyre, "is that it does not pretend to be the real thing - as do the movies." Even the most "realistic" of plays is metaphorical. And that gives it the potential to resonate, to be about a whole society. Most of the great playwrights in this century have dealt with issues of profound moral moments. Whether it is the humanistic quandary of Samuel Beckett's lost souls or David Mamet's hard-talking businessmen, there's a concern with meaning, with how we live and how we treat each other.

"For me, art has a moral dimension or it is not art," says Eyre. "A work of art is a counter to nihilism." There is a new hedonism surfacing in things like "reality" TV and certain movies, he acknowledges. It's a form of consumerism that is meant to deflect strong feeling - all ironic and self-referential.

" 'Cool' is the enemy of art," he says. "It takes courage to be foolish."

There's something delightfully "uncool" about an opera version of Little Women. The important American novel by Louisa May Alcott may seem quaint by contemporary standards, but the story has been a mainstay of American girlhood (and some boyhoods) for 133 years. It has never been out of print.

So Mark Adamo's rather emotionally charged, highly psychological version of the classic may be a surprise hit in the opera world, but its arrival could have been foretold.

In 1998, it premièred at the Houston Grand Opera, and was revived the next year with a grander production. That production is available to viewers Aug. 29 at 8 p.m. on PBS (check local listings). This latest in a line of "Great Performances" gives a hint of what the experience of live opera is actually like.

Mr. Adamo has changed the emphasis of the book, and that's always tricky.

It's not really "Little Women" anymore. But Alcott's inspiration is clear, and the piece itself - about the demands of family, resistance to change, and the need to live a creative life - finds a clear and powerful expression in the music, haunted as it is by lovely melodies.

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