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The highways and byways of arts

Summer performing-arts festivals can be as ''high tech'' or as ''high touch'' as you'd like. Last week I saw two that were about as far apart in style as strobe lights and sunsets.

At the PepsiCo Summerfest '84, high-tech reigns. Summerfest, in the tony Westchester County town of Purchase at the State University of New York, uses state-of-the-art lighting, recorded sounds, and movable stages.

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The first evening I saw Eugene O'Neill's ''Emperor Jones,'' about the downfall of the black American emperor of a primitive country. While writhing, cavorting natives (the Alvin Ailey Repertory Ensemble) and ominous drummers provided human touches, much of the mysterious atmosphere of the jungle was conveyed artificially: by turquoise smoke, recorded jungle noises, and electronically altered human voices.

The next night, in the indoor theater, the Piccolo Teatro di Milano's stunning production of ''La Tempesta'' (see Monitor review, Friday, July 27) used even more special effects. The moment the lights dimmed, the most terrifying noise I have yet to hear in the theater erupted: an ear-shattering assault of surf crashing, men screaming, and masts ripping apart. Hidden actors bobbing up and down underneath hundreds of yards of blue cloth created wind-whipped seas. At the end, the elaborate wooden set broke apart.

And yet, as awesome as these special effects were, the remarkable thing was that the acting was finely drawn and sensitive.

Summerfest will continue through Aug. 11, with a cornucopia of events: Circus Oz from Australia, a jazz quartet, storytelling, the Baltimore Symphony, and more.

In the 1890s town of Montpelier, Vt., 300 miles away, the town-sponsored Fools' Fest was all organic, do-it-yourself, and acoustic. At one point, 84 human hands simultaneously juggled 137 balls and pins. Performer Jon Gailmor sang about Vermont, ''where the gentle belong, where to feel is to be strong.''

The New England Vaudeville Festival, occupying two of the three stages, provided entertainment all day. Song-and-dance team Jones and Boyce tap-danced, the Blue Sky Serenaders crooned songs from the '40s, the loopy Painter Brothers rode the unicycle. The most high-tech entertainment was a rock band - and half of its colored lights blew out.

Well, almost. I must admit that in spite of the gentle country atmosphere, one of the biggest draws was a troupe of break dancers performing to booming music.

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