France's Mnouchkine and her 'metaphorical' Theatre du Soleil

''I have come 500 miles expressly to see this play!'' exclaimed the visitor from Italy. It was not hard for me to top him: ''And I have come 3,000 miles for it.''

Not surprisingly, this conversation took place in front of the box office of a theater on the outskirts of Paris in 1983 over a French production of ''Twelfth Night.''

What was truly curious, however, was that, standing in judgment over us, deciding which of us was to have his reservation honored, was the head of the theater herself and the director of the play, Ariane Mnouchkine. A cheerful, energetic woman in her mid-40s, she always seems to be around, exchanging casual greetings with playgoers and colleagues when the curtain is about to rise at her Theatre du Soleil in Vincennes.

In this instance, her judgment surpassed Solomon's: All of us got in - the Italian; my little daughter (then nearly 7, she had been prepared by getting ''Twelfth Night'' as her bedtime story for a week and, ultimately, she decided the production was great); and I.

And what a show it was! While offstage musicians rang out strange sounds on unfamiliar Oriental instruments, white-faced actors in exotic, colorful costumes loped across the stage, now shouting at us at the top of their lungs, now whining in falsetto. It was Shakespeare viewed through Japanese and Indian perspectives, with a soupcon of Italian commedia dell'arte.

This combination of methods has been applied to ''Richard II'' and ''Henry IV , Part I'' as well. All three plays have been acted in repertory by the same actors, who then went on to the Olympics Arts Festival in Los Angeles, making an enormous hit.

Ariane Mnouchkine has been following her own highly original path ever since she founded her theater 20 years ago. The daughter of a French film producer and granddaughter of an English actor, she studied at the Sorbonne and at Oxford. Her group is a commune in which her leading role has become increasingly prominent.

By 1968, her company was doing a version of ''A Midsummer Night's Dream'' which is said to have anticipated Peter Brook's inventive staging. Performances were interrupted by the political uprising of that year. The actors reassembled in Milan, where, enjoying the hospitality of Giorgio Strehler's Piccolo Teatro they presented ''1789,'' a play of communal authorship dealing with the French Revolution. From Milan, ''1789'' moved to the theater's new home in a former munitions factory in Vincennes, beyond the end of the Paris subway lines. The Piccolo Teatro also went on to the Olympic Arts Festival (please see the July 27 Monitor).

With this production, Mnouchkine established herself as one of France's leading directors and she also became enormously popular, both with the public and the critics. As often as not, her new productions are likely to win the annual award for best direction of the year.

In the most vivid fashion possible, ''1789'' celebrated the French Revolution , staging the events of its first year. Spectators found themselves in the midst of a vast playing area where the revolution itself was going on. Here was environmental theater with a vengeance! Anyone who did not look out was in danger of being trampled by an onrushing horde of revolutionaries.

The Theatre du Soleil muted its politics with a later show, ''The Golden Age, '' in which an Algerian immigrant to Marseille was represented as a commedia dell'arte character in a tragicomic role. Spectators went from scene to scene on what seemed to be a lumpy expanse of golden sand, giving immediacy to such scenes as the particularly memorable one in which a typical family is seen in goggle-eyed pantomime watching television, helpless victims of electronic hypnosis.

After years of collaboration, Mnouchkine made a vivid debut as a dramatic author by adapting Klaus Mann's ''Mephisto,'' about a German actor who becomes a Nazi. The success of this ''Mephisto'' apparently induced the owners of the film rights to do something with their valuable property. They invited Mnouchkine to direct their movie. She declined. The subsequent German-Hungarian film version won an Academy Award as best foreign film, but it is arguable that the Mnouchkine stage adaptation was better.

Now come the Oriental Shakespeares. In Mnouchkine's faithful translations, the style of ''Richard II'' is mainly Japanese Kabuki, ''Twelfth Night'' is mainly Indian Kathakali, and ''Henry IV, Part I'' is mainly Japanese with touches of commedia dell'arte. Why? Mnouchkine explained that the Oriental theater is more expressive than ours: ''The Oriental theater has the real form of acting. ... But this is not only for the Shakespeares. We worked on the Oriental theater for a long time now because, in the Western theater, actors know how to hide emotions.''

Asking about the falsetto and other odd ways of speaking and behaving, I was told that no decisions were made in advance: ''We have not decided. It comes out when we work. This emotion is translated like that.'' Her purpose was not only to put on these plays: ''It was also to find a way of acting. The center of the theater is acting.'' She found herself in conflict with the French tradition, which, like the American, is realistic: ''In France the tendency is to be as much like life as possible. What is not shown in life has to be shown in the theater. That's why we worked on some of these traditions.'' As for realism: ''It's not my way, not what I'm looking for. I'm looking for a much more metaphorical way of acting.''

Any French production of ''Henry IV, Part I'' invites comparison with the the version of celebrated French director Roger Planchon of 25 years ago, in which Planchon subverted Shakespeare's intentions, using the scenes in which Shakespeare defended the royal cause to demonstrate that there was nothing to choose between the combatants. Was Mnouch-kine true to Shakespeare's intentions? ''I think we have been. Don't you?'' Goodness! White-faced actors in Oriental garb charging around, alternately whining and shouting directly at us! Nevertheless, my answer was: ''Essentially, yes.''

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