NOTHING could be more wholesome, as the world shrinks, than an international arts festival. Whether the art is music or film or theater, the marketplace of ideas provided by an international festival bursts through the insulation separating a community from the rest of the world. Humanity, we are reminded, is always human wherever you go, but will constantly assert itself in infinite variety. The International Theatre Festival of Chicago (May 23-July 1), the only regularly scheduled event of its kind in the United States, brings cutting-edge and classical drama to Chicago every other year. This year's festival, the third, will see 12 companies from the US, Great Britain, Israel, West Germany, Canada, France, Mexico, Hungary, and Lithuania converging on the city to present some of the most discussed and challenging work in the world today.
Jane Sahlins, executive director of the festival, prefers the word ``adventurous'' to ``challenging.'' ``We try to make it as easy as possible for the audience,'' she said in a recent interview. ``We supply headphones for simultaneous translations to everyone without charge. The translations are done with a single voice; they are not acted because the performance is on stage. We look for productions that are not entirely language-dependent, so that an audience won't feel intimidated.
``We don't want to be purely presentational. One of the terms of our contracts is that participants engage in workshop demonstrations or post-show discussions. There are also brown-bag discussions - informal talks with visiting artists, moderated by local journalists. This year we had a two-day seminar `Shakespeare in Production,' and people flew in from all over the country just to attend the seminar.''
Sahlins said that Emma Thompson of the Renaissance Theatre Company led a workshop at a local high school, which delighted the students.
Bringing new life to the liveliest of all plays, making them appeal even to disaffected youth is just what British actor-director Kenneth Branagh and his Renaissance Theatre Company are about. Branagh's hugely successful film version of Shakespeare's ``Henry V'' made him the brightest star in the festival heavens here.
Branagh already had achieved a staggering reputation as an actor in England when Sahlins first heard of him - before the release of ``Henry V'' and just as he was shaping a world tour for his infant company. He was signed as the keystone attraction for the 1990 Chicago fest. The sold-out, two-week run of ``King Lear'' and ``A Midsummer Night's Dream'' very nearly put the festival in the black all by itself.
On stage, Renaissance is a revelation. The company's touch is as light as a fairy's - emphatically anti-declamatory, disguising a profound, intense envisionment of human nature, what Branagh calls ``large-souled acting.''
Branagh's direction of ``King Lear'' offered up a king who is first a man - a willful, blind, foolish old man and father, who yet carries his dignity like a banner after discovering it in adversity.
Richard Briers, a richly talented comic actor, brings to the role an earthy realism that speaks to our democratic sensibilities in a way forbidden to any antiquated, overblown, lofty idea of majesty.
Emma Thompson (Branagh's wife), an innovative, sagacious actress who rivets attention without upstaging her fellows, plays the Fool magnificently in androgenous death's-head makeup, hunch-backed posture, and halting gait. The tenderness with which Lear and his Fool treat each other in this production throws the ungrateful daughters' cruelty into high relief.
But Goneril and Regan are played for their humanity, too, and rather than making either of them relentlessly evil, Branagh allows us to see how pride and willfulness escalate wickedness, feeding off each other. Branagh's production, because it is so resolutely set within the parameters of genuine human feeling, allows us to see the relatedness of all the evil in the play, and conversely the singleness of all the good.
Branagh's interpretation is not without flaws. Branagh himself brilliantly plays Edgar, the Duke of Gloucester's legitimate son. At the end of the play, Shakespeare has Edgar forgive his wicked, dying brother, Edmund. But Branagh reads the line sarcastically with no real forgiveness.
Holding up a mirror to nature, as he does, Branagh's choice may seem logical - perhaps more logical than Shakespeare's: How can anyone as wicked as Edmund be forgiven? But Shakespeare's understanding of human nature included a vision of mankind's best impulses: forgiveness as a requirement of goodness, freeing the man who grants it. Alas, so much of contemporary humanism is not as large as Shakespeare's humanity.
The Renaissance ``Midsummer Night's Dream'' is played on the same set made for ``Lear'' - a marvelously designed silver wall suggestive of an ancient castle, classic Athens, and mysterious fairyland, all on a dark-red, circular stage.
Where ``Lear'' is all reds, blacks, and bright blues, ``Dream's'' Athenians all wear white; the play's workmen, contemporary dress; and the fairies, a riot of earth and flower tones. Branagh's fairies are played as an earthy lot, corresponding to folk tales of fairy mischief. But the workmen, led by Branagh's Peter Quince as a pretentious upstart director, with slicked-down hair and megaphone, and Briers as the irrepressible Bottom, were the chief delight. Odd vaudevillian touches and dandy bits of physical comedy sparked the whole theater with hilarity.
For US audiences Branagh's naturalistic approach to Shakespeare has relocated the Bard from the musty shelves of academe to the firm ground of the Relevant. Teenagers relate to his ``Henry V,'' and the disadvantaged high school kids who saw ``Lear'' and ``Dream'' at the Chicago festival were entranced.
In its short history, the festival has featured several US debuts. This year, companies from Hungary, Mexico, and West Germany are making their first appearances in this country, and several plays are having their US premi`eres in Chicago, too.
The festival has achieved a high reputation globally, and many companies have applied to be included. With the one exception of the Renaissance Theatre Company, all the companies were seen in production and approved by Sahlins or her colleagues.
The festival directors have brought back only one company, the State Theatre of Lithuania, partly because the Lithuanian community in Chicago requested it and partly because the company represents such deep-seated changes in its own country. The theater has much to say about the struggle for freedom. ``The Square,'' a US premi`ere opens June 26 in repertory with ``The Day Lasts More than a Hundred Years,'' about the clash of traditional spiritual values with the demoralization of the Stalinist period.
Other events include: Le Cirque Imaginaire (France), through June 17; Le Th'e^atre de la Marmaille (Canada) in collaboration with Teatro Dell'Angolo (Italy) in ``Terre Promise/Terra Promessa,'' through June 17; the Theatre Company of Veracruz (Mexico) in ``Cierren Las Puertas!'' through June 17; and the Katona Jozsef Theatre (Hungary) in ``The Government Inspector,'' June 19-24;
Ticket information is available toll-free by phone at (800) 545-FEST.