'Bishop' comes to Boston; 'Turandot' stays in town; Serkin visits

John Gray and Eric Peterson stepped into one of those moments in history when theater and life intersect in ways that playwrights are unable to predict. Back in 1976, Peterson found a book called ''Winged Warfare,'' by William Bishop. The book, which he passed along to Gray, recounted Bishop's experiences as a World War I flying ace, specifically his first 56 ''kills.'' ''There was not one sentence of remorse in it,'' Gray recalls, ''not one concern that people were dying.'' And it made them wonder, ''What kind of guy excels at war?''

The answer to that question came in six months of digging through the Canadian war archives, where there are copious references to Billy Bishop, ''the WWI ace with the second-most kills in the war,'' as Gray describes him. And it led to a play called ''Billy Bishop Goes to War,'' which is being produced by one regional theater after another in a war-conscious America.

''Billy Bishop'' - which ran at Trinity Rep in Providence, R.I., last summer and is scheduled to open Sunday at the new Crown Theater in Boston's Hotel Bradford - bombed on Broadway in a 1980 production that pleased the critics but failed to attract audiences. ''Nobody wanted to go see . . . a couple of Canadians do a show about an unknown Canadian hero,'' Gray recalls.

Gray was in Boston recently to look in on the forthcoming production (which has postponed its opening night twice). In his soft velour hat and fire-engine-red scarf, he looked the part of counterculture playwright, one who does performance pieces and then crystallizes them into exportable works.

A deceptive little piece of cabaret theater, ''Billy Bishop'' starts off as a dalliance in the songs and ambiance of World War I-era Canada. But, almost imperceptibly, it turns into a grim picture of the way war changes people. Billy Bishop changes from a callow youth to a killing machine in ways that he himself cannot explain - and we with him.

''It kind of sneaks up on you, the way it snuck up on him,'' Gray explains, adding that the whole war kind of sneaked up on the world. ''Nobody expected it to happen, but the world collapsed like a house of cards.''

Talking about all this, Gray starts to squirm in his seat, his voice becomes loud and tense, and his arms start to move. Yet, if he is to be believed, neither he nor his collaborator set out to make a piece of antiwar theater with ''Billy Bishop.''

''The impulse to do the piece came from the fact that we were broke. My landlord had turned off the heat, and I thought we could get a good six months' work out of the thing.'' They got a good deal more. A Broadway producer saw the piece performed in an Ontario railway station and urged Mike Nichols to come and take a look. Nichols liked it and brought it to Broadway. Gray acknowledges that it was the Broadway exposure, however brief, which gave ''Billy Bishop'' its American lease on life.

Shortly after the Broadway run, a Los Angeles production sprang up, followed by one in Oregon, followed by one in Louisville, Ky., and Atlanta, and so on.

Do all these productions mean a financial windfall to Gray and Peterson?

Well, no. Like most Broadway spinoffs, this one earns most of its money for the producers, he says. But things have taken a turn since the days of no heat. Although Gray says, ''I'm not out to get rich,'' he adds, ''I've got a house, I've got a kid. I'm very middle class.'' Not exactly the manifesto of a theater revolutionary. But maybe that's what gives ''Billy Bishop'' its charmed effectiveness. The show doesn't grab you by the throat and scream antiwar slogans at you. In its very Canadian way (Gray describes Canada as a country with the personality of Woody Allen - ''peace-loving, nonconformist, liberal with a small 'l' ''), the work sets about telling you a simple tale. And the tale itself does the grim work.

When it's done right, as it was at Trinity Rep last summer, ''Billy Bishop'' does all of that - and more. It apparently addresses concerns of many people who want to see, and think about, the stuff of which wars are made.

That is something neither Peterson nor Gray could have foreseen: the fact that their little piece had a rendezvous with the times.

If you missed ''Turandot'' at the Opera Company of Boston, you've probably been kicking yourself. Well, kick no more. The company has managed to work through the complicated skein of contractual commitments for the artists (principally Eva Marton, who must sing at the Met on Dec. 13) and come up with an extra performance, this Sunday at 3 p.m. For tickets, (and remember, they turned away 400 people at the door for last Tuesday's performance), you can call 1-800-223-0120.

It was a reflective, subdued Rudolf Serkin that took the stage at Symphony Hall and began playing Haydn's Sonata No. 50 in C major on Sunday afternoon. By the time he finished the performance with an unforgettably commanding Sonata Op. 57 (''Appassionata''), by Beethoven, he had been transformed into an outspoken, awe-inspiring, almost unearthly force.

Such are the powers of Rudolf Serkin, developed over these 50 years of concertizing, that just about everyone there made this internal journey with him.

What you hear in a Serkin recital is a lifetime of thinking about this music. What you see is new light, the kind that comes from having confronted the pieces afresh just the other night. His performance of these pieces, as well as Beethoven's Sonata in C-sharp minor, Op. 27, No. 2 (the so-called ''Moonlight'') and Schubert's ''Moments Musicaux,'' Op. 94, was one long, sustained reverie in the music - sometimes brilliant and cascading, sometimes introspective and hushed.

Serkin gives you the singing line, the architecture, and the inner spirit of these pieces. He is one of the great interpreters of the age at the height of his powers. And his annual visit to Symphony Hall is an event that many Bostonians would cross the Bering Sea to attend.

No one has to do that. All you have to do is find out where he's playing, and go. What you will hear is a performer completely about the business of making music, and discovering, and discovering again, the essence of the world's greatest music.

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