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Putting a French twist on the classics

In a former bullet factory just outside the Paris city lines, Shakespeare's Richard II comes to life - as a Japanese Kabuki figure. Dressed in an Oriental robe, King Richard paces about the huge stage, his painted face showing anguish as he is destroyed by the samurai Bolingbroke.

In the former factory's staging of ''Twelfth Night,'' Illyria becomes the romantic fantasy island of the East. Sitar music sets the tone. Leaping somersaults brighten up the farce. Ballet expresses the tenderness of the love story.

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Bursting with innovation and energy, Ariane Mnouchkine's productions of Shakespeare suggest that the Paris stage, at its best, can be as rich and exciting as that of London or New York. A whole series of virtuoso directors - Antoine Vitez, Patrice Chereau, Roger Planchon, Peter Brook, and above all Miss Mnouchkine - have revived French theater with a brilliant array of avant-garde productions.

''As in French cinema, the director has become the star,'' says critic Andre Cant of the theater review L'Avant Scene. ''The directors have brought a tremendous amount of energy to the Paris stage.''

The style of this new wave is, above all, theatrical. Sets are either lavish or stark. There are no star actors: Tight ensemble playing is preferred. Gesture , lighting, and movement are emphasized at the expense of the author.

Either the director creates the entire spectacle himself - Vitez, for example , turned the transcript of talks between Mao Tse-tung and Georges Pompidou into drama - or he radically reworks the classics.

The directors have wrenched the classics into such new forms that not all critics are taken with the new wave. When Vitez had his actors speak lines of French poetry with a traditional Japanese singsong delivery, Pierre Marcabru, the critic for the newsweekly Le Point, judged him guilty of ''semantic fantasies and tragicomic preciosities.'' When Planchon staged Jean Racine's ''Athalie,'' Marcabru called the production ''strip cartoon tragedy.''

Miss Mnouchkine does not escape similar criticism. ''She is a victim of this absurdist mode,'' Marcabru writes. He complains that her plays are too long, too stylized, and too shrill.

But most other reviewers are thrilled by the inventions of the new-wave directors, especially with Miss Mnouchkine. ''When the author is totally sublimated, the technique becomes abusive,'' says Cant. ''But despite the excesses, directors such as Mnouchkine are doing the most interesting work around.''

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Like many of the other directors who share her theories, Ariane Mnouchkine began her search for new theatrical forms in the wake of the violent student demonstrations of 1968. She formed her Theatre de Soleil in Vincennes just after the strikes ended, establishing a commune for her troupe of 40 on the premises of the derelict 17th-century bullet factory.

To this day, each member of the theater draws the same wage - 5,000 francs ($ 650) a month. Each works as an actor or technician - and as a carpenter, cook, press agent, or in any other role needed to keep the theater operating.

''We wanted to do something different,'' Miss Mnouchkine said in the spare communal theater kitchen. She is a large woman with a mop of hair who projects an imperial type of energy. This may be a worker's cooperative, but after hearing her authoritative voice, one has the feeling that everyone submits to her powerful personality.

''In this age of impersonal television and cinema,'' she continues, ''we have tried to create a new type of theater that involves the actors and the audience.''

The troupe developed together its first two efforts, ''1789'' and ''1793.'' Both productions were historical tableaux that related the French Revolution to the events of May 1968.

The audience was placed around a revolving stage, and the actors mixed with the spectators, engaging them in the action. Using a collage of theatrical techniques - improvisation, song and satire, the Italian comic style commedia dell'arte - the audience experienced the souring of a revolution along with the performers.

The two productions were tremendous successes - almost 300,000 Frenchmen saw them - and Miss Mnouchkine tried to follow them by putting her techniques on film. The result was a long, rollicking life of Moliere, but the cinematic medium failed.

''Making a film is like doing a painting,'' she said. ''In theater, the spectacle is immediate. Every day is different and you discover new things along the way.''

Despite its success with audiences, such avant-garde innovation has been difficult to finance. For the first 13 years after the troupe established in the Vincennes theater, the Culture Ministry snubbed Miss Mnouchkine, preferring to subsidize more traditional drama.

Every two years or so, the troupe would have to shut down its theater until its debts could be repaid. At one point, only the generosity of 112 artists, including Joan Miro, Alexander Calder, and Henri Cartier-Bresson, saved it from complete extinction. Each donated a work of his art for a charity auction which brought in 250,000 francs ($32,000).

Poverty ended only with the Socialists' victory in 1981. The new culture minister, Jack Lang, himself a theater producer, doubled Miss Mnouchkine's meager subsidy. This year she received 4 million francs ($515,000), a lot of money to be sure, though still far less than the 80 million francs ($10.3 million) earmarked for the Comedie Francaise.

Miss Mnouchkine herself has not let state aid make her complacent. Her new productions of ''Henry IV,'' Parts I and II, opened the first week in July. Productions of ''Love's Labour's Lost'' and ''Henry V'' are planned for next year.

She also plans to take her troupe to Los Angeles next June to perform her Shakespeare at the International Theater Festival being organized to run before the 1984 Olympics Games. Another visit to New York is being considered.

Her troupe will play in French, but she hopes American audiences will be familiar enough with the originals to follow the action. And she absolutely refuses to cut her productions - they now run longer than four hours - for less patient American audiences.

''Theater should be demanding,'' she says. ''My goal is to push theater as far as possible.'' Even without understanding French, Americans will certainly agree that Ariane Mnouchkine has indeed done that.

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