Experimental theater at its most intense

Among the varied pleasures of the PepsiCo Summerfare festival at the State University of New York campus here was the presence of an unusual Italian troupe known as the La Compagnia del Collettivo Teatro Due, otherwise known as the Collective Theater of Parma. The Collettivo, considered to be among the finest experimental theater troupes performing today, was formed in 1971. It has been offering a wide range of new works and adaptations that have been acclaimed in and far beyond Parma.

In the two weekends the Collettivo was at Purchase, it offered a two-hour, 20-minute collation of three Georg B"uchner plays and a scant two-hour overview of ``Macbeth.'' The performances were in Italian, and the audience had to rely on rather sketchy program notes, as well as the bold visual imagery of the productions themselves.

The B"uchner evening was remarkable. He wrote a masterpiece, ``Danton's Death,'' and parts of a work that, even in its fragmentary form, is considered the first modern play -- ``Woyzeck,'' written in 1837! The Collettivo's distillation of these works (and ``Leonce and Lena'') offered images that will long stay with the viewer.

The plays are abbreviated and otherwise edited and amended to suit the troupe's dramatic needs. Under the title ``At What Point of the Night Are We,'' the Collettivo offers B"uchner as an observer of revolution and its effect on humanity, as well as a chronicler of human despair. It opens with ``Danton's Death.'' On the simplest of sets -- a small three-quarter-thrust area with a steep ramp at the back -- we are plunged into a very contemporary world of graffiti sloganeering, mimeographed pamphleteering , and revolutionary chaos. Then we meet Danton, leader of the French Revolution, who is beginning to question the effect of revolution on basic humanitarian values.

This takes place in bursts of fury and even destruction. The time warp continues -- now Danton's time, now today. Suddenly, we are in a prison; the wall and the window of the prison are actually the floor of the stage. The players, lying on their sides, ``sit'' in chairs, playing cards. A man ``stares'' out the window. The perspective is of the audience suspended over the players, looking down from the imaginary ceiling. As a visual image alone, it is stunning. The idea of man imprisoned at once ties up

this abbreviated ``Danton's Death'' and sets the mood for the more complete ``Woyzeck.''

``Woyzeck'' examines, in the context of madness, man's inhumanity to man, seen in degrees of brutality, thinking and unthinking. The play is a study in the disintegration of anything human: The very pillars of society that destroy Woyzeck -- a doctor and a scientist -- are in fact madder than the victim. By the play's end -- and it has taken place quickly, often several scenes played out at the same time -- ghastly visions of lunacy and despair litter the stage.

This B"uchner evening is, finally, intense, even frightening. The subject matter is not easy. The troupe is unrelenting in its pace, but the skill with which image meets text and mood is consummate.

``Macbeth'' is less remarkable. It, too, is presented as a nightmare -- actors run around dripping wet much of the time, slipping and sliding through the ample water puddles on the plastic tarpaulin floor. But this show is more emptily nihilistic, and intentionally banal and crude. The politics of the troupe -- rooted in the Italian communist views of so many aspects of the world scene today -- is as big an impediment here as it was an asset in the B"uchner. The theatrical values are clearly rooted in t he experimentation of the early 1970s, and the visual vocabulary seems too often frozen in time. Perhaps with an Italian audience the responses would be more meaningful, but ``Macbeth'' suffered a sense of cultural vacuum in Purchase.

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