World theater beats a path to . . . Baltimore

True to its billing, the Baltimore International Theater Festival was international indeed. Only one American troupe appeared on the main program -- the Actors Theater of Louisville, Ky. -- among companies from Europe, Asia, and the Middle East.

There was even a bit of international tension. The integrated Baxter Theater of Capetown, South Africa, was slated to perform "Waiting for Godot" in honor of playwright Samuel Beckett's 75th birthday. Faced with vehement protest from blacks opposed to South African racial policies, however, the troupe abruptly withdrew from the festival.

The same Baxter production has been successfully presented elsewhere in the United States. The stars are John Kani and Winston Ntshona, black South Africans who have reportedly served time in prison for their opposition to the apartheid system. They are known to Americans for their dual-Tony-winning Broadway appearances in "Sizwe Banzi Is Dead" and "The Island."

Their decision to withdraw from the Baltimore festival came after protest from local blacks and -- according to the entertainment newspaper Variety -- pressure from the African National Congress, an organization that reputedly advocates violent revolt in South Africa.

Though the absence of the Baxter Theater from Baltimore's Center Stage disappointed many playgoers, protesters reappeared several nights later to celebrate their victory by picketing the opening of the Abbey theater's production of Sean O'Casey's "The Shadow of a Gunman." Thus chants against racism competed for attention with merry Irish music welcoming spectators to another show marked by strong emotional undercurrents stemming from current world situations.

Despite the withdrawal of teh Baxter troupe, which reduced the number of production available for review during a three-day period at the height of the festival, plenty of theatrical activity still took place in Baltimore. At the attractive Morris A. Mechanic stage, the towering Abbey Theater of Ireland was preceded by the equally towering National Theater of Great Britain. Meanwhile, in an auditorium at the Baltimore School for the Arts, Els Joglars (from Barcelona, Spain) preceded the moving Picture mime show from London.

Perhaps by chance, these four companies divided evenly between "well-made plays" of a conventional sort and experimental work with an emphasis on action and gesture rather than language. This suited the history of the festival itself, which ran for several years as an "experimental theater" event before taking on its new "mainstream" slant for 1981. Its future will be determined after assessment of this season's artistic and financial success.

In any case, there is nothing "experimental" about the National Theater's very British double bill of "The Browning Version" and "Harlequinade," both by Terence Rattigan and known jointly as "Playbill" when first produced in 1948. they provided a high point of the festival, in prestige and tradition, if not in boldness.

"The Browning Version" is a crafty and concentrated drama, condensing several complex personalities and two or three subplots into little more than an hour. The story focuses on an English schoolmaster named Crocker-Harris (known as "the Crock" to his pupils) whose disappointing career is drawing into a weary homestretch. Beset with age and health problems, saddled with an unfaithful wife, decades removed from the scholarly brilliance of his early life, he has no shield except the irascible and sometimes irritating mannerisms that have made him decidedly unpopular among his students. The title refers to a crucial object in the play: a book presented to this curmudgeon by one of his young charges, whose gift may or may not be sincerely intended.

Though quite a bit of action occurs before "the Crock" makes his entrance, he is clearly the pivot of the play. Alec McCowen plays him brilliantly for the National theater, as a stubborn and impossible old coot who holds the stage and the audience in the palm of his hand from the moment he walks through the door into his dreary sitting room. As his game and gamy wife Geraldine McEwan hits a forceful note about midway between the high class of a Maggie Smith and the racing energy of a Tammy Grimes. A first-rate cast backs them up.

As for "Harlequinade," Rattigan himself calls it a "souffle" to follow the "main course" of "The Browning Version." And that's just what it is -- a mildly amusing romp through the theater, centered on a rehearsal for a regional production of "Romeo and Juliet" that gets interrupted by everything from gossip to slapstick, not to mention the outlandish marital complications of the stars.

For all its comedy, "Harlequinade" looks rather stodgy even alongside "The Browning Version," which doesn't look too fresh itself, despite its precisely assembled and frequently moving dramaturgy. These are sturdy plays, lovingly mounted, but not exactly exciting. The Abbey Theater

The Abbey Theater production of "The shadow of a Gunman" is also steeped in the not-too-distant past.And, inevitably, it is steeped in current passions about Irish Affairs. On opening night in Baltimore, at least one burst of applause was prompted by a line about Irish independence -- forcing the actor to mark time in the middle of a line ("but . . . but") for half a minute until the audience quieted down and let him complete his speech. Naturally, the speech turned out to be dialectical, not polemical -- reflecting, like the entire play, more about human nature than particular political views.

The production by the Abbey is sturdy if not scintillating. Each of the performers has a strong grasp on his or her own part of the fabric, and they weave together at a confident clip, though there are few moments when their work meshes to form a truly inspired tapestry of events and emotions. Moving Picture Mime

From the same corner of the world comes the Moving Picture mime Show of London, an ingenious troupe whose fame deserves to spread far and wide.

And there aren't only samurai to contend with -- there is practically a cast of thousands counting the townspeople, the bad guys, and various outsiders. Somehow, the Moving Picture trio brings them all into the fray, with plenty of swordplay and comedy, and a mere handful of words spoken the whole time.

After intermission, the mimes returned with three playlets, performed in large white masks. More silent than ever, and with even their expressive faces hidden, the group evoked a world of emotions anyway. It's too bad they concluded at Baltimore with their weakest piece, about a school examination that rarely got as funny or as poignant as it was supposed to. But the opener was excellent -- about a bully, a slingshot, and a hand grenade -- and the centerpiece was downright uproarious as two mismatched contenders flailed their way through sundry games and competitions, with victory never falling quite where you would have expected. Els Joglars

By contrast, the physically oriented Els Joglars of Spain are more iconclastic and less appealing. Their science-fictionesque "Laetius" tells the story of a new life form, emerging on earth after a nuclear disaster. but the troupe soon betrays a monotonous interest in low farce that becomes tiring whenit doesn't actually put one off.

Even so, Els Joglars contributed to the variety of the festival, which was certainly eclectic. Other visitors included the Habimah National Theater of Israel, La Claca from Barcelona, Mamako & Company from Tokyo, special appearances by the Big Apple Circus, and a Young People's Program held in the gorgeous Inner Harbor area of Baltimore. One hopes the returns -- boxoffice and aesthetic -- are strong enough to sustain this lively and diverse affair as an annual event, as attractive and engaging as the fine Baltimore neighborhoods that were its headquarters.

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