The United States has never had much of a reputation for cosmopolitan taste in theater, but that may be changing.
Foreign films have helped, and the number of cities hosting international film festivals -- as well as the number of US theaters offering films from overseas (many using subtitles) -- has been steadily increasing.
Although foreign theater is a more questionable proposition, the number of troupes touring the United States is on the rise. And for the last five years, the US has had an international theater festival annually in Baltimore. When Baltimore decided to discontinue this artistic endeavor last year, the Denver Center for the Performing Arts decided to pick up the torch. So for the last three weeks in July theater troupes from 13 countries will converge on the Mile High City to play to midcontinent American audiences for the first time.
''After putting on five years of festivals in Baltimore, I wasn't really interested in doing it again,'' explains Al Kraizer, who founded and produced the Baltimore festival - first of its kind in the US - and is directing its Rocky Mountain successor. ''But the center officials persuaded me to come out and look things over. When I did, I got really excited,''
With its cluster of four stages, the Denver Center for the Performing Arts is an unusual facility, Mr. Kraizer commented. In Baltimore and in typical European theater festivals, performances must be spread over a large area and troupes are accustomed to jury-rigged sets and lighting in school auditoriums. Here, however , the theatrical activity can be concentrated and the festival atmosphere intensified.
''We will make the sense of festival omnipresent,'' said Mr. Kraizer, a long-time theater manager and producer. His plan: engaging street performers such as Phillipe Petit, known for his high-wire walk between the two World Trade Center buildings in New York City, and opening an informal outdoor cafe.
''When I first accepted the position, I wasn't completely optimistic about what could be done here. I figured we'd be able to put together a small festival with maybe four or five foreign groups and rounded out with some original American works,'' Mr. Kraizer acknowledged.
''But the response has been incredible. The foreign troupes are eager to come here,'' he said. ''To them it's like going to a festival in the Alps. And many had heard of the center. As a result, we've been forced to turn a number of groups down. And we have people interested in coming in 1983 and '84.''
The big question is the extent to which audiences here will brave the foreign-language performances: Will what worked
successfully in Baltimore play in Denver?
Of the 18 plays, eight will be in English. The rest range from Serbo-Croatian to Portuguese to a mixture of Italian and broken English. Audiences at the foreign-language performances will be given an English synopsis. ''I absolutely guarantee that no one will have any problem understanding anything,'' Kraizer said. One criterion of selection has been easily understood plots. As a result, performances lean heavily on music, mime, and masque rather than on heavy intellectualizing.
The English-speaking troupes performing include the renowned National Theater of Great Britain, the Melbourne Aboriginal Theater Companies from Australia, the Vancouver East Cultural Center from Canada, the Footsbarn Traveling Theater Company from England, and 14 Carat Soul from the US.
The foreign-language performers are the Habimah National Theater of Israel, the Greek Amphi-Theater, the Yugoslav Zagreb Theater Company, the Italian Les Colombaioni, the Portuguese Theatre de Cascais, and the Brazilian Grupo Cantadores des Historias.