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Theater as a second language: drama speaks louder than words

Theater as a second language. It's a way I pursue my education in a country with a language other than my own. Most recently it was Spain in the winter, when the Spanish tourist office in New York advised that unfortunately nothing would be happening onstage. The concierge at the hotel in Madrid listened patiently but said much the same. But when I bought the equivalent of Manhattan's Cue magazine, I found a theater schedule stretching to a couple of columns, including works by Shakespeare, Goethe, Beckett, and various native playwrights - all in Spanish, of course.

As in some other countries, the local citizens assumed the English-speaking visitor wanted only English-speaking theater, and they were protecting me from the home-grown variety. If I had always given up in such circumstances, I would have missed various memorable theater-as-a-second-language experiences, including ''Charley's Aunt'' in Arabic (in Tunis, Tunisia), ''A Doll's House'' in Greek (in Nicosia, Cyprus), and a musical stage version of ''To Sir With Love'' (with Sir as a woman teacher) in Arabic (in Cairo). And in Spain I might not have seen anything but the flamenco dancers and singers recommended for tourists.

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As it was, I came home the richer by three evenings in the theater to add to the exhilaration of wandering among the centuries of great Spanish art that needs no words. Two of these evenings were ideal for theater as a second language in that the themes were familiar - Faust and the biblical David and Absalom - and much could be guessed at as the Spanish flew. The third, in Catalan, was on a familiar contemporary theme, the difficulties of Christian ecumenism. It was such a broad comedy that a lot came through without the lines (or with them when a word like ketchup or McDonald's surfaced in an unmistakably satirical way).

The fun of learning begins with trying to figure out the theater listings (with their curtain times often as late as 10 p.m. in Spain), buttonholing people for directions, and buying tickets. In my laughable Spanish I asked a woman in the cage at a Barcelona ticket agency (yes, just as in Times Square) if she spoke English. No, she said, but your Spanish is so good, please continue. At least that's what my wife said she said. Thus I was amiably forced into coming up with half-remembered words and wild surmises until we found out that the opera really wasn't on that night or something.

What was on in Barcelona - in addition to ''Al vostre gust'' (''As You Like It''), de W. Shakespeare, and many other things - was ''Teledeum,'' performed by a local comedy troupe. The droll advertisement showed an innocent lamb marked off like cuts of meat, with each section bearing the name of a different religious denomination.

But we were turned from the box office in a flurry of Spanish, or perhaps Catalan, adding up to sold out. We had already come to expect crowds at the theater, crowds that seemed younger than the ones at the high-priced theaters in New York. The ticket for ''Teledeum'' was the equivalent of about $2, and we had not paid much more for elaborate productions in Madrid.

Anyway, as we hesitated in the lobby, deciding whether to rush somewhere else , there came a rapping on the box office window behind us. The two motherly women inside were all smiles, conveying that they had found tickets for us after all.

In Madrid, we found a stately and reverent, though sometimes emotionally extravagant, production of Calderon de la Barca's ''Absalon.'' Calderon (1600-81 ) is one of those classics dramatists whose works, even the internationally celebrated ''Life's a Dream,'' are seldom produced in the United States. To catch one of his plays in his own Spain - and directed by one of Spain's leading directors, Jose Luis Gomez - is almost more than a stagestruck visitor on a short trip could hope for.

Quite a different approach to a classic author was taken in the Teatro de la Danza's controversial production of ''Fausto.'' Yes, there were the dancing girls and the befurred creatures. But more interesting was the use of music far from Gounod's opera - namely, Monteverdi from the past and Benjamin Britten from the present. These contrasting sounds were played with and against the sometimes spectacularly choreographed action. Rightly or not, the theater-as-a-second-language spectator got a new sense of Faust and Mephistopheles as somehow in this together.

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Unfortunately, I could not check this response with someone at ''Fausto'' who really knew what was going on. But at ''Absalon'' I did find a bilingual volunteer who could spell out what was happening and - contrary to that advance word from the Spanish tourist board - it was a lot. The people you meet in finding out such things are one of the delights of theater as a second language in any country.

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