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Chicago Drama Fest Thrilling

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The International Theatre Festiv al of Chicago is in its fourth year, and this year's schedule, running from May 22 to July 1, boasted 16 productions from 10 countries. On a recent weekend, I was able to see four, and what follow are brief impressions. The festival's highlight was, without doubt, the Renaissance Theatre Company of England. Sprung full blo wn three years ago from the mind of young Kenneth Branaugh (29 years old), the troupe has been playing packed houses both at home and abroad. Branaugh 's recent film success as adapter, director, and title player in Henry V has made him a matinee idol, and the results include sell-out houses for its current tour of "K ing Lear" and "Midsummer Night's Dream." The thrill of this Lear is that Shakespeare's text takes center stage. Director Branaugh does not engage in the fashionable trend that favors distrac ting flour ishes, and he allows the enchanting Richard Briars to command the audience with a Lear pared down to human dimensions. Briars charms his audience from the moment he speaks his first words, and one marvels not only at the versatili ty of these actors, but at the play 's infinite possibilities. While Lear can range from a figure of mythic proportions to a child-like figure in his dotage, possibilities for the fooi are infinite. In an intriguing conception, the fooi is played here by Emma Thompson (Branaugh' s wife) as a crippled, asexual, humpbacked, ghost-like creature. Her face is po wdered white, dark rings encircle her eyes, and she speaks with a hollow sound several registers lower than her natural voice. Much of her dialogue is sung, and the only frustraiion lies in the clear sense that behind these atonal, hollow strains lies a lovely singing voice. Emma Thompson and Richard Briars again steal the show in "Midsummer Night' s Dream" as Helena and Bottom, respectively. Thompson is a star among stars; she has that quality of inspired playfulness that can turn a simple line or even a word into a comic evenL Briars ' magnetism is accompanied by a mischievous twinkle that communicaies itself to every corner of the house. In one of the funniest renditions I have ever seen of the play within the play, (Pyramis and Thisbe) the rude mechanicals take us into the 1930s, in satin tuxedos and a background of ragtime piano, and they bring the house down with a musical finale that left hardly a dry eye, so potent was the laughter.Throughitall, Kenneth Branaugh mocked his own directorship and newly found fame by playing a self-important Peter Quince, director of the mechanicals' play. And yet, all was not perfect Branaugh is said to have paired "Lear" and "Dream" because the comedy would fortify the company for the tragedy during a long and potentially draining run. He is s aid to have chosen "Dream" because he thought its darker side would complement "Lear." Unfortunately, his interpretation of the play's dark side is rendered quite literally, with the stage only dimly lit ihrough all of the faery scènes. The result is tedium, abetted by the insufferably frisky Puck played by the lithe and limber young actress who prances about and coos to no particular puipose olher than superfluous color. The dialogue in these scènes is lost, and one sits and wishes for the funny mechanicals to hurry back. Similarly, in "Lear," when Branaugh chooses not to rely on üie script, nis struggle for effect ends up obscuring the text In a technically interesting 10 minutes, there is rain on stage for the scène where the tempest in Lear 's mind competes - unsuccessfully - with the storm on the heath. Let it be clear, ho wever, that despite these disturbantes, these are thrilling productions. The Northlight Theatre in Evanston was host to"Bornin the RSA(Republic of South África)." Bamey Simón, artistic director of the Market Theatre of Johannesburg, resurrects the show he developed (with the original Market Theatre cast) with a new, international cast of actors . The show is a compila tion of testimonies by his country men, both Black and white. It is amoving statement that forms another link in the developing theatre of protest in South África. These political shows are not, strictly speaking, true threatre. They are a kind of newsreel, a stage documentary. In a place where everyday life trivializes what normally passes as drama, scènes from real life challenge audacity of fiction to teil South Africa's tale. True stories are translaied into declamatory, evocative speeches which stand as withering testimony to the tragedy of real life. The performances are astonishing. Finally, in the Josephine Louis Theatre of Northwestern University's campus, the Cameri Theatre of Tel Aviv presented "Shira," an adaptation of a novel by Nobel-prize winner, Joseph Agnon. "Shira" is the story of a brilliant but stymied University professor who suffers from writer's block. Desperate for a muse, he has an affair with his wife's nurse while his wife recovers from childbirth. The nurse, Shira (the Hebrew word for "poetry;" a name whose popular English equivalent is, probably, "Joy "), has an inexplicable hold on the professor, and the aff air continúes intermittently for years. When Shira disappears, the professor pi nes until he finds her in a leper colony. The final scène closes on their last embrace, an intimacy that seals the professor's doom. The play, like the novel, is a dream-like series of symbols. It is nothing if not evocative. For that reason, seeing this play is a bit like visiting a fond, old relative. Unless one has some close association to the object of the visit, the time spent there will be boring. I loved my visit Judging by the number of seats left empty after intermission, others did not. To hear the familiar strains of Hebrew, to see familiar manners and gestores, to hear replayed such fond, familiar songs, advice, debate, and anguish, was balm to my soul. The performers were marvelous, particularly the dashing Ilan Dar, the 53 year-old star. It is unfortonate that AdapterDirector Yoram Falk never carne to grips with the fact that the novel was never finished, and that it was published posthumously with two endings. The play, too, seems unfinished. It simply stops. In spite of that, I found the evening enthralling. But visitors should beware. This play, like a private joke, is not for all.


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