NEW YORK — Audiences at the annual Lincoln Center Festival of international theater companies have a certain look that distinguishes them from, say, the goofy party crowds at “Monty Python’s Spamalot.” It’s the expression of pilgrims hungering to be enlightened — as opposed to being merely entertained.
New Yorkers turn out for these celebrated companies for different reasons. Ethnic audiences yearn for a taste of their own culture and the sound of their own voice. Cosmopolites want to know what they missed while they were in the Hamptons. Students come to learn. The downtown theater crowd comes to cheer. The uptown pros attend with notebooks in hand. (And doesn’t someone from Disney always show up to see if there’s an animated movie in all this exotic spectacle?)
But that quasi-religious fervor has more to do with the guru-director factor. Peter Brook, the helmer whose spiritual journey through alien lands produced such visionary work as “The Conference of the Birds” and “The Mahabharata,” had already prepped the faithful with his “Tierno Bokar” at Barnard U. Brook’s hypnotic meditation on Sufi mysticism was the spring warm-up that set the summer stage for other avant-garde directors.
Like Brook, these heavyweight helmers presented works that bore their distinctive stamp. Robert Wilson displayed his wizardry at stagecraft in “I La Galigo,” a music-theater piece adapted from a 14th-century epic poem depicting the cosmology of a minuscule Indonesian island culture. Lavishly costumed and drenched in highly saturated colors, Wilson’s serene treatment of this sacred text about gods, goddesses and foolish mortals unfolded in pristine shadow-puppet images and the ritualized movement of dance, acrobatics and the martial arts.
Despite the mesmerizing presence of Irish actress Fiona Shaw in the trouser role of Hans Christian Andersen, “My Life as a Fairy Tale” was a bust as narrative art. But whatever legit designers were in the house got beaucoup visual inspiration from Chen Shi-Zheng’s whimsical conflation of the wretched life and enchanting art of the Danish storyteller. Working with costumes so rigidly constructed they qualified as body sculpture, the director transformed his thesps into living artworks as winged birds and fishtailed mermaids, at times dangling these wondrous creatures from mid-air. In the deconstructed language of the text, broken images from Andersen’s fairy tales were salvaged with some charm in Stephin Merritt’s score.
The most striking piece of stagecraft seen at this summer showcase, however, was Ariane Mnouchkine’s inspired use of rolling stages and wheeled platforms to transport the actors playing political refugees in “Le Dernier Caravanserail.“ In this two-part, six-hour spectacle of spiritual and geographic displacement, the identities of individual characters often were swallowed up in choppy vignettes of desperate misery and frantic flight. But the dizzying speed of movement propelled the production onto higher ground by creating a dreadfully apt image for the global migration — an unstable, shifting landscape that allowed neither safety nor refuge for rootless people torn from their homes and cast adrift by war.
For all the beautiful and powerful images that bowled over auds at this year’s fest, directorial vision proved less narcissistic than it sounds — mainly because the great international directors seem obsessed with constructing a stage language for articulating visions other than their own. In this sense, even Mnouchkine’s highly idiosyncratic “Dernier Caravanserail” is an attempt to give voice to the speechless misery of the dispossessed.
Even the dead had their aesthetic spokesmen. The comic vision preserved in the Piccolo Teatro di Milano production of “Arlecchino” is that of Giorgio Strehler, who died in 1997 but left an indelible imprint on stage comedy with his original 1947 production of Carlo Goldoni’s 18th-century play.
Ferruccio Soleri, who has been playing the archetypical title role of Goldoni’s scheming servant for almost half a century, restaged the show to preserve the stylistic vocabulary of Italian commedia dell’arte. Other clowns have updated the play’s commedia conventions; Soleri chose to restore them according to Strehler’s 1947 vision for a post-war Italy that was weary of the grim realities of the period and badly needed a return to its antic comic roots.
The absent genius in the Ninagawa production of “Modern Noh Plays” was Yukio Mishima, who committed ritual suicide in 1970 to protest the postwar Western influences he felt had corrupted the ancient Japanese culture. Mishima wrote eight modernized Noh plays, not strictly to preserve the art form, but to adapt it to his own austere political vision — a nihilistic vision faithfully re-created by Ninagawa and company.
It’s no wonder Lincoln Center auds had that look of pilgrims in search of a shrine. On the international stage of the avant garde, theater is still a place of worship and the directors at this year’s festival are still the high priests at this temple.