PROCESS THEATER, BEFORE...AND AFTER

They're baaaack. With the just-opened Beethoven 'N' Pierrot, Czech director Pavel Dobrusky and Norwegian counterpart Per-Olav Sorensen have once again brought "process theater" to the Denver Center Theatre Company. The first of their offbeat pieces--Stories, based on Isabel Allende's novel The Stories of Eva Luna--was a delightful, technically brilliant bit of magic realism, odd enough to disconcert, but not odd enough to give viewers fits. A year later, though, Dobrusky launched the controversial Star Fever, based on Euripides's Bacchae--and this time, many audience members freaked.

Star Fever was as outrageous a theater piece as Denver has ever seen. It ridiculed America's penchant for celebrity worship and borrowed the quick editing techniques of the movies to lambaste television--especially talk shows. Its main character, a scheming judge, donned a pink chiffon gown, did a tragic (and ludicrous) ballet and was subsequently torn apart by his own mother and other crazed women (just as in Bacchae). Most shocking of all, at the end of the play, a child picked up a gun to kill someone as the shortest road to celebrity. At the time, Jeffrey Dahmer was fresh in the public's memory and O.J. Simpson was on trial for murder. But the severed-head toss on stage was still too barbarous for many.

Real life is creepy enough without having to see it in the theater, some audience members complained in letters to the DCTC--after all, a lot of people go to the theater to be entertained, not enlightened. And Sorensen and Dobrusky's work has led to a continuing debate on the local scene about whether such horrific images can do anything but inure the audience further to violence.

On the other hand, all the appalling data we get about "real life" can be difficult to process or hold in any kind of perspective--and perhaps that's where "process theater" comes in. Dobrusky's cutting-edge work in Star Fever may have parodied TV, but it also held a mirror up to the nightmarish nature of American self-indulgence and escapism. It was not a pretty picture, but it was exciting because it was so raw, so inventive and so fully realized. There was method at every turn in all the madness of that wild and woolly production, which shattered preconceptions and startled sensitive audience members. It communicated in metaphors--and Americans, as Dobrusky points out, are not very good at thinking in metaphors.

Dobrusky, who splits his time between Denver and the European theater scene, likes to quote the Russian author and playwright Nikolay Gogol, who said, "Don't blame the mirror if your own face is crooked." A voracious reader and avid news junkie, Dobrusky hates TV but says he sees enough of it to know what's being dumped into the public consciousness. When he and Sorensen work together, they create a loose script (with Beethoven, they started with 135 pages of scenes and dialogue). They choose their cast carefully, then load down the actors with lists of things to read on the subject at hand. All this is standard enough. But the difference between process theater and the more ordinary variety lies in the contribution of the actors and in the relationship between the directors and the actors. Rehearsals, in particular, are a whole other kettle of fish.

The actors start with a script, but they don't end with the same one. Dobrusky tape records the rehearsals; the actors improvise, work with the dialogue and change it as the scene develops. When a scene is just right, the dialogue is transcribed and the scene is "set." There is no real story, but there is always a point. Dobrusky and Sorensen's plays are not grounded in realism, but they do reflect very real conflicts in individuals and in society.

One of the elements that most invigorates the actors, says Anthony Powell, who plays Beethoven in the current production, is the actors' sense of "ownership" of the piece. Great images (like flowers suddenly blooming on stage in Stories) can stem from an offhand comment. The new DCTC production has likewise been formed by the talents and sensibilities of Powell and the other Denver actors; were the directors to pack up the original 135-page script and take it to New York, audiences there would see a different play.

DCTC artistic director Donovan Marley adds that nothing invigorates the technical staff quite as much as the demands of these process-theater pieces. Terrific technical demands are made and need to be solved--sometimes in a matter of a few hours.

Sorensen, who has also directed at the National Theater of Norway, objects to the word "experimental" to describe his work. "We have to try to tell the stories in a different way," he says. Even the great Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen bores Sorensen, who prefers to "tell the story faster." The pace is as swift as a rock video, passions turn on a dime, and conflicting images crowd in to keep the viewers' attention riveted to the stage.

Dobrusky is a "painter of big strokes," attracted to large themes that are sometimes political and sometimes not. While Star Fever was a strident political piece, Beethoven is about the nature of creative genius. "We are following what happened in Beethoven's life--how he behaved," says Dobrusky.

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