Martin P. KellyDrama critic
Section: LOCAL,  Page: B5

Date: Tuesday, March 18, 1986

"An Imaginary Report on an American Rock Festival" may have been a smash hit in Europe for a dozen years, as the press release claims, but it certainly lost something on its way across the Atlantic. The American premiere at the Empire State Institute for the Performing Arts is a disappointment, to say the least.

Based on a real event, the Altamont, Calif., rock music festival in 1969 when 300,000 fans gathered in a second Woodstock celebration, the stage translation of a small novel is Brechtian in tone and confusing at best. The incessant rain, heavy use of drugs and the eventual murder of a young black man by the Hells Angels at this late-'60s gathering of rock fans aroused 70-year-old Tibor Dery to write a short novel.

It, in turn, was adapted for the stage as two Hungarian emigres became the focal point during the festival. Refugees from European struggles, they become embroiled in American social upheaval.

This "imaginary report" of the emigres' plight is elusive in that a whole act or, at least a prologue, appears to be missing. When the show opens the two, who are married, have been separated by the young woman's determination to attend the festival to find a connection with humanity. The husband drives tothe festival to find her.

The audience never sees the the couple as they might have been before this festival. Why did they part? What is the motivating force for leaving a husband who appears devoted? The two characters are mere shadows swallowed up in the sea of humanity at the festival.

As for the festival itself, Hungarian composer Gabor Presser approximates the music of the times but it is derivative with little uniqueness. The songs find a rock beat that permits choreographer Patrica Birch to recreate the dance and the movements of the period and, in other moments, there is some real lyricism to the softer ballads. However, the music appears grafted to the story as it does little to move the plot along.

The translation of the Hungarian script and its reworking by W. A. Frankonis is didactic in tone. The major tragic moments are related by other characters; none of the action is seen. This narrative technique robs the script of any vitality.

The heavy-handed didacticism is expressed by the young emigre's denunciation of the drug culture as he sees the horror of the drug scene in which his wife is living. While his commentsare well-motivated, he appears priggish in his dealings with the young woman.

He is seen almost as an avenging angel, even condemning his wife when he finally finds her. As a result, she flees again and final tragedy results.

Director Rose Deak does little to bring clarity to an obscurescript. There is no empathy with the leading characters or the assorted individuals among the rock fans. The lack of exposition for the main characters robs them of any humanity. They are mere symbols, it would appear.

As a result, Jeanne Vigliante and Joseph Larrabee-Quandt are hard pressed to bring any real life to the two Hungarians. Both sing their songs well in solo and with the rest of the company. Still, they are burdened by characters that are ill-drawn and which provide little opportunity to gain sympathy for their plight.

The young company of Equity performers along with members of the local company are in good voice and dance well but nothingnew is brought to this commentary on a disturbing time in American social history. "Hair" is still the definitive musical theater statement on this subculture and this show pales in comparison.

A great deal of effort has gone into this production and a talented cast and creative staff assembled but it would appear for naught.

"An Imaginary Report on an American Rock Festival" continues through Saturday night.