'In the Belly of the Beast" puts us face to face with one of the imponderable dilemmas of our time: crime and punishment, or to put it another way, the blurred social reality of justice and guilt.

If it does as good a job in its main-stage Mark Taper Forum run (starting Thursday) as it's done at Taper, Too, and at the Sydney Festival in Australia, we'll leave the theater shaken.

"In the Belly of the Beast" was first adapted for the stage by Adrian Hall from trial transcripts and the anthologized letters of Jack Henry Abbott, a convicted murderer whose brutal tale of lifelong institutional incarceration (he was first confined as a kid) was so powerfully told that he became the darling of New York's literati--Norman Mailer chief among them. In Abbott, they saw the apotheosis of the artist as outlaw, a notion whose romanticism--like that of radical chic--had not prepared them for just what the beast would disgorge. A month after he was paroled in 1981, Abbott had a misunderstanding with a restaurant waiter and struggling actor named Richard Adan, and in a combination of embarrassment, fear and the reflex action engendered by a life that had to be defended daily, he stabbed Adan to death.

The job of trying to present a stark theme without theatrically perfuming it fell to 38-year-old director Robert Woodruff. The choice was made for reasons other than getting hold of a blue-chip director--which Woodruff has certainly become. During the last decade or so, he's emerged as one of the pivotal artists in whatever new directions American theater is taking. With playwright Sam Shepard, he has worked on "Buried Child," "True West," "Tongues" and "Suicide in B Flat." On his own, he's directed Shepard's "Curse of the Starving Class," "Savage Love" and "Pecos Bill." He's one of the founders of San Francisco's Eureka Theater and the Bay Area Playwrights Festival.

For the Olympic Arts Festival, he struck up an improbable alliance with the comic juggling troupe the Flying Brothers Karamazov in an even more improbable production of "The Comedy of Errors." When it was announced that the gifted clown Bill Irwin would play in "A Man's a Man" at the La Jolla Playhouse this summer, eyebrows went up: This would be interesting. When we found out Woodruff would direct, we sat up: This could be remarkable.

But there's something else about Woodruff--a dead seriousness, a steady fire kept low--that makes him a prime choice for holding this play on its cutting line. Over a sandwich and a beer across the street from rehearsals at the Taper Annex, a visitor had only to glance at Woodruff's scabrous knuckles; he'd bloodied his hands working out on a heavy bag.

Said Madeline Puzo, who produced "In the Belly of the Beast" at Taper, Too: "I didn't want to do something that would glorify a killer, but Adrian Hall's material (the piece was first performed at the Trinity Square Repertory Theater in Providence, R.I.) made me realize how ignorant I was about the subject. I'd never thought about the effect of culturization on an individual, and of the dilemma of communication, in this way before. When I first came across Woodruff's work in 'Buried Child,' it was the best direction I'd ever seen up to that point. It was intelligent, sure-handed, and you didn't see the director. Here he's gone for the balance between sympathy and horror."

Woodruff seems a natural for such a daunting subject, being somewhat daunting himself.

"I'd be working my tail off in rehearsal," says Andrew Robinson, who plays Abbott, "and I'd hear Woodruff's voice coming out of the dark. 'Lies! Lies! I don't believe a word of what you're doing.' He's always looking to push this piece further and further in a way that will make the audience experience it directly. Woodruff is like Abbott in more than one way; he's at least as bright, and he knows America is not Disneyland. He understands paradox, which is what this play is about. He's compassionate and hard. He has a rich inner life, but nothing he gives comes cheap. Only the strongest of us can work with him."

Woodruff is sparing with the amenities (although he's warm toward people he knows and trusts, as he chatted a bit with an actress he knew from San Francisco who stopped by the table). He's not a glad-hander, and not someone you'd hear chuckling rosy fatuities from the lectern at a testimonial dinner.

He's lean and long-limbed, and his swarthy, strong features are set off by a leonine helmet of dark, frizzy hair. He almost invariably dresses in black, which makes him resemble one of Shakespeare's campaign-hardened young generals. (The outfits sometimes make him the object of affectionate gibes; in summery Australia, he showed up for an outing in black hiking shorts, provoking the remark, "Ah, Robert is in his spring pastels.") His manner is skeptical and intense. When he thinks about something, he thinks about it, drawing his observations out with difficulty.

Of hiring on to do "In the Belly of the Beast," he said: "At first, I hated the idea. I thought it was a real liberal apology about the environment creating pressures, not anything about Abbott's personal responsibility. Adrian's script was passionate and brilliant, but it wasn't quite finished." He looked down momentarily at his clasped hands like someone who's just received bad news. "It just didn't ring true.

"But then I sat with it for a while. I began to change my mind, especially after I got hold of interviews with Abbott and trial transcripts. I thought it might be possible to create a space for the irresolvable meeting of two opposing ideas. You have a man subjected to this dehumanizing treatment; at the same time, he's a killer. How do we take responsibility for this killer in society? I think there's a lot to Mailer's statement that society must take risks for the people it puts away. If it doesn't, it's a closed society.

"It's a risk both ways," he continued. "It's not a game. In this society, there's a separation between convict and the outside. In other societies, there's a process for re-integration. We're at a point now where the separation is natural, instead of society wanting to make itself whole. This is an American story too. Only in America can you go from solitary confinement to 'Good Morning America' in 60 days and become a media star."

About his own biographical details, Woodruff is grudging. "I was born in Brooklyn and later moved to Great Neck, Long Island. My father owned an electroplating plant on 30th Street that made watch bands. Sometimes they turned green on your wrist." He gave that combative, fatalistic New York shrug. "It kept food on the table.

"As a young man, I read magazines a lot. Not that I was interested in their content. I was interested in their form. And I recorded a lot. I went everywhere with a tape recorder. Taped John F. Kennedy's funeral, the Friday night fights. Everything."

Schools? "A few of them. I was at the University of Buffalo at a good time, when Gregory Corso and John Barth were there. It was an incredibly isolated campus in the middle of the city. I was a political science major. I never thought about the theater. Later, I began to study it at City College in Manhattan. I thought it was something you could do immediately without having to study for a long time. I'd been teaching, and I didn't want to waste any more time.

"Later, I went to San Francisco. There were good people there; we started up the Eureka Theatre, a very flexible 50x70-foot space. I'd been very impressed with the Royal Shakespeare Company production of 'Marat/Sade.' I guess I was never really interested in plays that told stories much. I liked to feel something alive in a stage space, and I wanted to feel that the audience had a role in what was going on. We did the basic stuff, Brecht, Pinter, Chekhov, Shakespeare. We had one commercial hit, 'When You Comin' Back, Red Ryder.' That's enough. Let's talk about the present."

It was through the Eureka that he began to develop some theatrical credos, although he says that he starts out every new project feeling terrified at not being able to find a way to do it.

"Theater is not realism. The theater is about sound evoking an emotional, intellectual, visceral response to an image in a room. The actor is not just responsible for his own emotional life. It's his responsibility to evoke an idea for the whole room, not just for himself. It's a constant struggle, finding a format for an idea. You want to be able to see something now , without rules of seeing. And you get stuck!" He banged the table angrily with the flat of his hand.

"By being arbitrary, you escape restriction. But, as Richard Foreman said, you can't escape meaning. In this piece I want the arguments to resonate, not the emotional issues. The theater can be so manipulative. What we're trying to do here is create a balance between showing someone society had dumped on all his life and someone who is a real killer. Abbott wrote his book to make clear, to make you understand."

Woodruff therefore would like to put us in a theatrical strip cell without any defenses--even the defense of style. "I want people to look at this and ask, 'What is our social contract?' " And what's Woodruff's? "I don't know. I don't feel very well integrated into society. I'm somewhat of a voyeur, I think."

Through the bars then, a glimmer of recognition.

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