Drama on a Cosmic Scale. A small Oregon company's audacious staging of a neglected epic proves that modern theater needn't be small-minded. CELTIC MYTH AS RETOLD BY YEATS

SOME people believe the mission of drama is to explore the cosmic questions about human identity and destiny, and for such people Portland's Storefront Theater is offering something extraordinary. To commemorate the 50th anniversary of the death of William Butler Yeats, the Storefront has audaciously mounted the visionary Irish poet's five-play cycle based on the mythic hero Cuchulain (pronounced koo-HOO-linn). The Portland project is only the second professional production of the full cycle to be presented in America and the first one produced outside New York City.

The Cuchulain cycle adds up to heroic theater on several levels. Its themes are universal, adapted from the Celtic hero tales that may have been the source of the Arthurian legends, with Cuchulain as the prototype for Sir Gawain and his uncle, the High King Conchubar, the model for King Arthur.

The production also makes daring use of storytelling techniques from several continents and of a different director and theatrical style for each of the plays. And the audience, too, may feel that a degree of courage is required for them to sit through four hours (with only two intermissions) of what for all but the most intrepid stage buffs will be a radically different theater experience than they are accustomed to.

Their effort is well rewarded, however, with a production that is always intriguing and sometimes exhilarating, if not always entirely successful.

As one might expect, when a small company tackles so ambitious a project, the results are uneven. But since virtually every moment of every play represents a risk taken, carping over the shortcomings would be like complaining that Columbus's first map of the New World wasn't to scale. For what unfolds on stage is the discovery, or rediscovery, of a lost theatrical world.

The actor/director who launched this epic in stagecraft is Keith Scales, a familiar figure in Portland theater for some 20 years now. The London-born Mr. Scales, with rough-hewn features and a manner of speaking that's full of drama even in conversation, conceived the project seven years ago, after being invited to stage the first play from the cycle, ``At the Hawk's Well,'' for the Portland Poetry Festival.

His research for that production led him to the comparative-mythology section at the library, where he read about Yeats's impassioned efforts over many decades to reshape theater to meet what the poet perceived to be the needs of his time.

Yeats thought theater should provide ``the intoxication of the imagination of the world.'' He believed it could even help unify Irish culture by presenting a common symbolic world that would bridge over the quarrels and factionalism dividing his country. In all, he wrote 26 poetic, ritualistic dramas, and he helped found Dublin's famous Abbey Theatre.

The core of Yeats's theatrical work dealt with the greatest hero of Celtic myth, Cuchulain, a figure he hoped would inspire his countrymen as ``a symbol of creative joy without fear,'' Scales says. ``The Cuchulain cycle is almost a clinical example of the archetype of the hero-journey. The plays are telling a story that everybody knows, because it's buried in everyone's subconscious.''

Yeats wrote the plays intermittently during the latter half of his life. The earliest in the cycle, ``On Baile's Strand,'' was penned in 1904, after the poet had visited Stratford-upon-Avon, and it is intentionally Shakespearean in character. This play, chronicling Cuchulain's rage after he unknowingly kills his own son, eventually became the middle play in the sequence.

The next play, ``The Green Helmet,'' written in 1910, was patterned after ancient sagas in a style Yeats called ``heroic farce.'' ``Hawk's Well'' and ``The Only Jealousy of Emer,'' the first and fourth works in the cycle, were written in 1917 and 1919, during a period when the playwright was intrigued with Japanese Noh drama. The concluding piece, ``The Death of Cuchulain,'' was written shortly before Yeats's own death in 1939. ``I think he put everything he knew into it,'' Scales says.

Scales had just left Portland for Seattle in search of wider acting opportunities when a grant from the Oregon Arts Commission enabled him to travel to Ireland to study Yeats. When he returned to Portland, he was able to persuade Storefront to tackle the daunting Yeats cycle, and to draw other people from the city's theatrical community into the venture.

In one sense, Storefront might have seemed a curious choice for Yeats and mythology. For 20 years, the company has been Portland's leading venue for modern experimental and original work. But in another sense, the match was perfect; throughout its history, Storefront has been one of the most adventurous companies anywhere, and in Scales's conception, the Cuchulain cycle is wildly experimental.

Scales enlisted four other directors to join him, each handling one play from the cycle in a different style. Such cooperation is possible here because, in Portland's close-knit theater community, where rivalry is generally friendly, the many small, impecunious, but artistically ambitious companies cross-fertilize one another.

To help direct the cycle, Scales invited Ric Young, a Storefront co-founder and one of the city's most conspicuous theatrical talents; Michael Griggs, artistic director of the rival New Rose Theater, which tends toward a classical repertory; Allen Nause, artistic director of Artists Repertory Theatre, a more eclectic group; and Rebecca Adams, the former artistic director of Artists Repertory.

The choreographer, Dennis Spaight, is artistic director of Ballet Oregon. Henk Pander, designer of the striking set, is one of Oregon's best-known visual artists. The actors, designers, and technical people are also well known here.

Mr. Young's interpretation of ``At the Hawk's Well'' is creatively influenced by the modern Japanese butoh style of stagecraft. It is perhaps the most eerily effective of the five plays. Young makes brilliant use of musicians Robin Chilstrom, David LoVine, and John Vergin (who appear throughout the cycle); Ms. Chilstrom's weird vocalizations and a riveting physical performance by Evan Knapp as the hawklike guardian of the well create some moments that are uncannily powerful. Al Strobel, as an old man, and Lance J. Holt, as the proud and confident young Cuchulain, also give strong performances. In all, Young has created a work of startling beauty.

Michael Griggs's version of ``The Green Helmet'' could not be more drastically different. Its broad ``Marvel Comics'' style is underlined by thought balloons that pop up on stage complete with verbal messages. Played as farce, the piece veers a bit too close to silliness for comfort; suffice it to say that this segment will not be to all tastes.

Allen Nause gives a clear, clean reading of ``On Baile's Strand.'' Here Ted Roisum imbues the role of the mature Cuchulain with the unmistakable presence, power, and conviction of a true epic hero, which is an enviable achievement for any actor. He makes this central episode in the cycle work effectively, although his very strengths make most of the other performers on stage seem pallid by comparison. As Conchubar, Fritz Congdon seems a bit too garrulous.

With her staging of ``The Only Jealousy of Emer,'' Rebecca Adams is the only one of the five directors who chooses a Celtic setting. Using masks by Daniel Fagereng, costumes by Ric Young, and stylized movement, she succeeds in creating an aura of gravity and otherworldly melancholy. She elicits strong, restrained performances from Vana O'Brien as Emer, Cuchulain's wife, who renounces her claim to him in a bargain that saves his life, and Trisha Todd as Eithne Inguba, Cuchulain's mistress.

In ``The Death of Cuchulain,'' Keith Scales employs the trappings of American Indian mythology. His approach has promising elements, but it is marred by the modern-dress costumes, which undercut the nonnaturalistic world of the story and the vast battle scene in which Cuchulain is mortally wounded. Despite the awkwardness, however, Ted Roisum's Cuchulain is again strong and resonant, and his characterization is complemented by several sharp supporting performances.

The cumulative impact of the Cuchulain cycle is greater than that of its individual parts. Far from wearying the audience with its length, it gathers strength as it goes along and succeeds in breaking through the conventional notions of drama to fully engage its audience.

The production also points beyond itself; it is exhilarating because, for all its flaws, it so clearly demonstrates that theater can tap a deeper wellspring of meaning and passion than it usually aims for.

Earlier this season, Portland drew national attention with the debut of Portland Center Stage, the second company of the Oregon Shakespearean Festival, which joined Portland Rep as one of the city's two Equity companies.

Now the Cuchulain cycle is one more signal that theater in this city has come of age.

The Cuchulain cycle continues at the Portland Center for the Performing Arts through this Saturday.

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