In recent years, distinguished director Peter Brook has been moving toward a radical simplicity. In film, the galloping energy of his "Lord of the Flies" has given over to the meditative mystery of his "Meetings with Remarkable Men." On stage, the exuberant acrobatics of his "Midsummer Night's Dream" have been replaced by the indelible directness of his work with the International Center for Theatrical Creations, now presenting four plays in repertory here through June 15.
Based in Paris, this company is an outgrowth of the International Center for Theater Research operated by Brook since 1970. By exploring the basic elements of theater -- including language, movement, sound, and space -- Brook and his troupe are seeking to establish a new unity among performers, spectators, and material. To this end, they have performed under varied circumstances in cities and towns around the world, and studied new approaches under intensive "laboratory" conditions.
The sample of their work now on stage at La Mama does not include their most daring verbal experiments, such as a production performed entirely in an invented language. Yet it gives an inclusive picture of where Brook and his colleagues are today and offers a good deal of stimulating drama.
Attended in the order preferred by Brook, the three evenings make a sort of theatrical concerto with Brook's dramaturgical ideas coursing through the performances like an ethereal solo instrument. The first "movement" is prestissimo, with a riotous African fable called "L'Os" ("The Bone") followed by an anarchic "Ubu roi," in which Alfred Jarry's famous but often offensive plays is given erreverent treatment. Then comes a slow movement: a sad and contemplative drama called "The Ik," about a dislocated African tribe. The last production, "The Conference of ther Birds," is spectacular enough to be a fitting finale; yet it is accompliced with awesome economy of means.
Take together, the plays show a purposeful progression from coarse physicality to philosophical transcendence. The curtain-raiser of the first evening, "L'Os," has the impact of a well-told fairy tale -- and the perfect construction of a well- told joke -- as it unfolds the comic story of a greedy African who refuses to share a coveted hunk of meat with his tribe.
The tale explodes across the stage with a minimum of props, costumes, and Scenery, and a maximum of roguish energy from a running, jumping, whirling cats that spews its dailogue in a diverting combination of French, English, grunts, and hollers. It's an all-too-human yarn about all-too- human characters, and its poetry lies in the amused pity it evokes from the spectator. Later in the evening, similar energetic treatment is accorded to Jarry's "Ubu Roi."
The second evening sets the scene again in Africa, offering an enactment of the real-life plight of a Ugandan tribe called the Ik. Displace from their traditional hunting grounds by a government order, the Ik were forced to become farmers without preparation or instruction. The play, based on a study by anthropologist Colin Turnbull, depicts in graphic terms the devastation that visited the Ik. Ingenious stagecraft is everywhere in evidence, coupled with a rigorous austerity: a precatious automobile drive, for example, is represented by two actors sitting on a trunck while other performers rattle pots and pans on a sandy floor to make rattletrap noises. The result is an openly heartrending look at a tragic situation, in which theatricality is inseparable from compassion. It is an impressive achievement.
"The Conference of the Birds" aspires to a more sublime level. Based on a 12 th-century Sufi poem, it represents Brook's profound internationalism-symbolized by hordes of bird-characters that are even more variegated than Brook's multinational acting troupe. It also takes a good deal of impetus from Brook's deep interest in the philosophy of G.I. Gurjieff, who counseled self-exploration as they way to increased "human potential."
"The Conference of the Birds" is a parable in which a hugh conclave of feathered creaturs represent the warring factions within human nature. Overcoming their differences, they embark on a journey in search of enlightenment, which they finally find by "looking within." The bittersweet saga is told lightly and gently, with just enough carefully chosen the- atrical artifices to give the uncluttered evening the look of a thoroughgoing spectacle -- complete with puppets, Balinese masks, fabulous Oriental carpets, and delicate Asian music in the background.
Here, in this fanciful "conference," is the summation of Brook's current work with his exellent actors, gathered from a long list of countries and cultures. By looking within, we ultimately look without, as well; and the theater can be an ideal ground for exploring in both directions at once, by depicting and examining our common humanity in all its phases and guises. "The Conference of the Birds" is an utterly serious and utterly whimsical work, and the responses it evokes are equally diverse and complementary. It shows Peter Brook as a master of his art, and makes one look toward his further explorations in the future.