Two cliched offerings from the 'avant-garde' Living Theatre
The subject of international acclaim and controversy, the Living Theatre has returned to New York for a brief stay after a long absence. Confronted by its first two productions, a newcomer might suppose that the principal talent of Julian Beck, his wife Judith Malina, and their company has been for survival. That is not the case. The Becks have accumulated numerous awards and have won renown (along with prison sentences) at home and abroad since founding the experimental group in 1947. Most recently, Jack Lang, French minister of culture, has invited the Becks to settle in Paris, which they expect to do at the end of their 1984 American tour.
So why should the work of a troupe that once epitomized the revolutionary and avant-garde now seem so theatrically empty, tiresome, and old hat? Perhaps the Living Theatre has been surpassed by more recent innovators (who in their turn may become deja vu). Nothing fades and dates like avant-gardism. Perhaps the Becks have been overrated all along.
The limited engagement at the Joyce Theater began with two populous productions: Mr. Beck's ''The Archaeology of Sleep'' (in its American premiere) and Bertolt Brecht's ''The Antigone of Sophokles.'' Both works are presented without intermission. Both are pretentious, overlong, and overloaded with the Beck-Malina affectations that have become cliches.
''The Archaeology of Sleep'' comprises a phantasmagoria of 31 fragmentary sequences interspersed with brief lectures on the subject by white-coated Mr. Beck as a kind of Dr. Caligari presiding over an institution of some sort. The actors make their entrances on little cat feet, crawling out from under the five beds occupying the stage. Among the subjects touched on are Jacob and the Angel; Prometheus bound, unbound, and cinematized; the murder of Gonzago from ''Hamlet''; Mata Hari, Pandora, and Medea; Christianity, Islam, and Judaism.
A program note explains that the play's five Sleepers are based on five members of the Living Theatre. Call it group self-indulgence. The production features an upstage conveyor belt on which - among other things - a sleeping beauty glides on and off in a clear-plastic casket.
The script contains a strong protest against cruelty to laboratory cats. Mr. Beck also fires off a metaphorical depth charge at the Trident nuclear sub. The results of the author's earnest endeavors would be more suitable as a studio exercise than as a public offering for a hopeful playgoer. The entire production was designed by Mr. Beck, with music by Raaja Fischer.
''The Antigone of Sophokles'' seems not so much of Sophocles or even of Brecht as of Beck-Malina. To begin with, the casually clad actors take an inordinate time making their snail's-pace entrance onto the bare stage. (The Becks are specialists in the execution of arrested slow motion.)
The plot concerns Antigone's defiance of King Creon by symbolically burying her brother, killed fighting on the wrong side in a fratricidal war. The tragic tale threads its way through the Living Theatre obstacle course - the howling and growling and chanting, the dispersals of actors into the auditorium, and assorted Malina-Beck directorial embellishments. The production spreads more fog than light.
Miss Malina is a headstrong, frizzy-haired Antigone, while Mr. Beck's Creon appears intended to incorporate varieties of the tyrannical personality. Other principals who have been allowed the privilege of individual characterization include an Ismene (Antonia Materia), who seems like a foreigner in Thebes, and Hanon Reznikov as a recognizable Tiresias, the blind seer. Creon's offending son Hamon (Ilion Troya) scarcely makes an impression, and Creon's wife Eurydice doesn't appear at all. So much for Sophocles.
In the end, ''Antigone'' proves as anti-audience as it is antiwar. What price alienation, ritual, and political commitment?
Two additonal plays complete the Living's repertory at the Joyce: ''The One and the Many'' (''Masse Mensch''), by Ernst Toller, and ''The Yellow Methuselah, '' by Mr. Reznikov, based on George Bernard Shaw's ''Back to Methuselah'' and Wassily Kandinsky's ''The Yellow Sound.'' The company ends its New York engagement Feb. 26 and begins touring in Philadelphia March 12. The rest of the itinerary was not available at this writing.