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Art that binds the centuries and nations: Mexico's world theater festival

In this charming town 200 miles northwest of Mexico City, the annual Cervantes International Festival recently attained its 10th year, with what it claimed was the largest assemblage of its kind of music, dance, and drama groups in the Americas.

In addition to native offerings, companies from 21 nations around the world came to the festival. Many of them, such as ones from Nigeria, Poland, Yugoslavia, and Cuba, had not been seen in the United States; more familiar were the London Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Erich Leinsdorf; Leonard Bernstein, now with the Israel Symphony; Rudolf Nureyev, with the Boston Ballet; Merce Cunningham; and the Bejart 20th Century Ballet.

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In a drama festival one always expects Shakespeare. At Guanajuato, there were two of his plays, and a memory. The National Theater of England brought over its new 1981 production of ''Measure for Measure.''

Director Michael Rudman has transferred the play's locale from medieval Italy to an imaginary island in the Caribbean. Productions of Shakespeare have tried all sorts of variations, for all sorts of reasons. This Spanish-American setting was presented in English with black and white actors. The town square had stalls of bananas, tinware, and pottery (despite Rudman's chaotic market noises), and the show seemed to the Mexicans like Shakespeare come home.

From the Soviet Union, the Rustaveli Theater of Georgia continues its bold modernizations of Shakespeare. Director Sturua, who has won wide acclaim, and stirred considerable controversy, with his tradition-defying productions of ''Othello,'' ''King Lear,'' ''Hamlet,'' and ''Julius Caesar,'' presented ''Richard III,'' with Gloucester, soon to become the third Richard, making his appearance in a long, low-hung automobile.

The oldest play presented at this year's festival was Euripides's ''Hecuba,'' translated into modern Greek by the State Theater of Northern Greece for home consumption. Here, before a highly varied audience--for all performances at the two open-air theaters are free--it was a revelation to note how the artistry of Nellie Angelidou as Hecuba, speaking in an unknown tongue, her every utterance a lament or cry of distress, held 5,000 listeners in silent concentration for two hours, with a rapture of applause at the close.

The most vivid of the modern plays was ''Macunaima,'' by Mario de Andarade, played by the Macunaima Theater Group of Brazil. This combination of myth and biting social satire takes the folk hero Macunaima through the Amazon jungle to the great cities of Brazil, where he continues to revel in the eroticism that pervades the play but rejects the greed and the social bias of the ''civilized.'' He returns to the jungle, but now it rejects him, tinged with the taint of the city--and he is translated to the sky as the Big Dipper, hoping to help point the way to other mariners on the sea of life.

The liveliest of the presentations were an open-air series of skits, ''Cervantes Interludes,'' from which the festival expanded. Don Quixote, the woeful man of La Mancha, is the butt of the practical jokes, as when the virtuous housewife he is seeking to rescue (as an imprisoned countess) splashes him with a jugful of water from her balcony.

But the most full of fun is his servant Sancho Panza, bubbling with proverbs and tireless with tricks. The surface satire is evident; further thought may make clear a profounder truth.

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And further thought bound the work of the festival with the impulsions of the ages. In ''Hecuba,'' Euripides presents, through the suffering of an anguished mother, the dire consequences of war; more than 2,000 years of ''progress'' since have widened and deepened the dimensions of danger. And the play has had a lasting hold. It was well-enough known in the Elizabethan Age for Shakespeare to evoke the memory. When the players come to Elsinore, and the First Player gives an example of his powers, Hamlet contrasts his own genuine grief with the playacting: ''What's Hecuba to him, or he to Hecuba, that he should weep for her?''

The 10th Cervantes Festival at Guanajuato suggested the comforting thought that art binds the centuries and the nations--and that it is unsparing in its dramatic view of the troubles that continue to threaten the existence of mankind. The more sullen, brutal (even obscene) Berlin Schaubuhne version of the English play ''Class Enemy,'' and the Cuban transformation of a folk-play about the Apostle James (Santiago) into a battle cry for revolution, emphasized this philosophy.

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