Living Theatre: still true to ideals, though today they seem dated

The Yellow Methuselah Theater piece written and directed by Hanon Reznikov for the Living Theatre. The One and the Many Play by Ernst Toller. Directed by Judith Malina for the Living Theatre.

To the surprise of one and all, the legendary Living Theatre has returned to its native shores looking rather . . . old-fashioned.

This was the last thing anyone expected. In its first American season after some 15 years abroad, the devotedly experimental troupe might prove too extreme, or fiery, or self-absorbed, or just plain far out. But old-fashioned? Impossible for a company that once made theater history by joining radically innovative techniques with anarchopacifist philosophies in works ranging from the brilliant ''Frankenstein'' to the outrageous ''Paradise Now.''

Ironically, the leaders of the group - Julian Beck and Judith Malina - may have spawned this problem themselves, as an unexpected byproduct of their own past persuasiveness. Today's theater scene is dotted with directors and performers who once belonged to the Living Theatre, or were deeply affected by it. But these former disciples have continued to progress and refine their work, evolving beyond the Beck-Malina models that were once such a towering influence.

Out in Europe and South America, meanwhile, Beck and Malina stayed true to the visions that guided them 20 years ago - so true that their methods now seem sadly dated by comparison with younger counterparts, although their sense of conviction and commitment is as strong and sometimes as inspiring as ever.

If the Beck and Malina have been superseded, therefore, it's by theatrical forms rooted in their own ideas and experiments. This being so, it's outrageous that some of New York's most powerful critics have disrespectfully backhanded their latest offerings, as if the troupe were a gang of arrogant amateurs.

Nor has their current season been unredeemed by strength. ''The Archaeology of Sleep,'' written and designed by Beck, deserves a slap for its lack of focus; yet surely its inventive structure and astonishing imagery are on a par with work by directors not critically derided. ''The Antigone of Sophokles,'' a Brecht adaptation, seems less urgent than it did during the Vietnam war years; but is this reason to ignore the energy still generated by its bold physical vocabulary?

This said, I'm sorry to note that the second half of the current slate is rockier than the first. ''The Yellow Methuselah,'' by troupe member Hanon Reznikov, takes its cue from earlier works by artist Wassily Kandinsky and George Bernard Shaw. Meant as an ''affirmation of life,'' it does windy variations on Shaw's windy play ''Back to Methuselah,'' decked out with lavish costumes and lighting effects. The show has its moments, especially when Beck dons Shavian whiskers and conducts a poll in the audience. But the later scenes move at a pace bordering on lethargy.

''The One and the Many,'' by German playwright Ernst Toller, was first performed in 1920. Beck has designed a stunning set for its stylized plea against violence, and the lighting effects are dazzling. In directing it, however, Malina gets hung up in its didactic aspects, never coming to terms with the melodramatic storm that whips about Toller's passionate ideas.

While this has been a disappointing season, it's encouraging to find Beck and Malina still committed to their ideals, visionary as these may be. With their current work they stand further than ever from their goal of effecting real social and personal change through theater. But behind the often dreary surfaces of their latest plays, their energy can be strongly felt. One hopes they return to the drawing board undaunted by recent setbacks and dream up the kind of startling theater pieces that will give this energy the efficacious outlet it needs.

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