An assassin's bullet is aimed at your heart. The assassin is your heart. Think of the care you must take in your steps, in your plot for getting through every waking day. To go through life like that has to give you a heightened consciousness of the strange evanescence of things, of the preciousness of the ordinary.

This is how actor-director Joseph Chaikin, one of the most mysteriously luminous figures in the history of modern theater, must edge through his day after three open-heart surgeries. Chaikin's troubled heart, and the war of the spirit against the flesh, undergoes examination in Jean-Claude van Itallie's new play "The Traveler," which premieres Thursday at the Mark Taper Forum.

"Think of the implications of what it means to have open heart surgery, to have one's heart actually opened," Van Itallie said. "Yet the last thing I want this to be thought of is a hospital play."

Van Itallie's anxieties about audiences misconceiving "The Traveler" are certainly justified. So many plays of the past 12 years, beginning with Michael Cristofer's "The Shadow Box" in 1975, have been concerned with terminal illness and right-to-die issues that a cloud of ether has risen above the landscape of American theater, whose seeming death knell has been signaled by the clangor of the bedpan. Virtually none of them has evoked the spirituality of the human organism.

The life of Joe Chaikin has been more intimately concerned with these things than any of those plays, but paradoxically more removed as well. Though he's not a household word, where Chaikin is known (in American experimental theater circles he's held in almost mystical regard) he's remembered as one of the architects of the last true revolution in American theater--the Living Theater and Open Theater experiments of the early '60s in New York that attempted to break up the glacial weight of naturalism and Actors Studio conceits.

The lives and careers of Chaikin and Van Itallie have been intertwined since 1963 when, after the production of his first play, called "War," Van Itallie joined the Open Theater.

" 'War' involved actors improvising, so when I met Joe, our ideas were already converging," Van Itallie said. "We thought we could break new ground in the spectrum. That was the center of the '60s movement. I felt a center of energy at the heart of things in that loft on 24th Street with a company of eight. We had no money, no nothing."

It was also the era of Ellen Stewart's La Mama, Caffe Cino, Theatre Genesis and the Judson Church, among others. "In the '50s you had the beat poets," Van Itallie recalls. "Later in the '60s it was the hippies and rock. But in between, the energy and the attention were in the theater."

Articles and treatises on the last days of the Open Theater almost always attribute its 1973 demise to Chaikin's fear of becoming "institutionalized." But another more fundamental reason is simply that he feared his heart was about to give out.

Sometime during Chaikin's last heart surgery, in 1984, he suffered a stroke. When he came to, he not only reawakened to the fear of the time bomb in his chest, he now had to come to grips with a neurological malady that paralyzed the right side of his body and shut down his ability to speak and comprehend words--a savage irony in the life of an artist dedicated to finding words so poetically tight-fitted to the thoughts and feelings they expressed that they took on a musical, totemic resonance.

The sealing off of Chaikin's body from his expressive impulses was an almost supernatural raising of the stakes in a game he's been playing most of his life, and which partly centers on the proposition that "since none of us is wholly self-invented, what is it that antedates our flesh and shapes us in spite of ourselves?"

Chaikin has worked hard to resuscitate the portions of his body and brain that were more dead than alive, and he's resumed his career. Though his speech is still seriously impaired, he can read aloud clearly and communicate. He's been concert-reading a collaborative piece (written with Sam Shepard) called "War in Heaven"; he's directed a compilation of Adrienne Kennedy works called "Voyages" in New York and Washington's Kennedy Center; he's visited Israel to work with Arab and Israeli actors; and he's recently worked with the Traveling Jewish Theatre, and the Magic Theater and Vaudeville Nouveau in San Francisco.

Still, he's in no shape to get on a stage and nightly play out a role whose physical and emotional strains are evident, even in rehearsal, in the robust, high-tension performance of John Glover--who is considerably younger than the 51-year-old Chaikin, whose surrogate role he portrays.

Instead, Chaikin is on hand as consultant to the story of a driven, even arrogant artist cut down in mid-career. And he's seeing once again in "Traveler's" staging, which involves the transmutations of memories and dreams and a trip through otherworldliness, the expressionistic uncoiling and interweaving of an ensemble style that hearkens back to the Open Theater's heyday.

(Steven Kent directs. During the late '60s and early '70s, Kent's Company and ProVisional theaters were the purest and most interesting Los Angeles counterparts to the New York experimental scene that drew, in addition to Van Itallie, artists such as Sam Shepard, Paul Foster, Maria Irene Fornes, Megan Terry and Lanford Wilson).

Chaikin appears smallish and somewhat unprepossessing--at first. His skin has taken on a rough, ruddy glow from its exposure to the Southern California sun, and his curly hair clusters along his scalp in tight, smoke-like whorls. His pale eyes, heavyset in their sockets, are watchful and sympathetic. His manner is somewhat grave, semi-abstract, as though he's in the perpetual grip of an afterthought.

Van Itallie and William Coco, 39, a Columbia University professor, modern theater specialist and Chaikin expert (as well as "The Traveler's" dramaturge), are constant companions of Chaikin's while he's here (somewhere in the play there's an allusion to the Traveler's talent for getting people to look out for him). Together they form a contemporary triptych: The literary interpreter, the historiographer, and at the center, the artist eagerly trying to steer his expression through aphasia's grudging locks.

Van Itallie, who at 50 is an ascetically slight, somewhat puckish-looking figure, did most of the speaking during a couple of interview sessions.

"The idea for this piece came about when Joe and I were riding in a car," he said. "He was reading captions from the Gustave Dore book of illustrations for Dante's 'Inferno' as an exercise book to re-learn reading. I realized there was a parallel between 'The Inferno' and the emotional journey of Joe's life. It was also a way for working again, a starting point.

"Later we met and talked again about what the director finds and what the actor finds. We decided to start again with a workshop. I realized this was a very personal story of someone surviving aphasia. We stopped the workshop and moved up to my house in Massachusetts. Then we did a staged reading at the River Arch Theater in Woodstock. Gordon Davidson then offered Joe either to be in it or direct it."

Chaikin spoke up. "I'm too close. It's not diary. But it's different theater."

When he isn't reading aloud, Chaikin's speech is truncated. A sentence begins to come out and then disappears, as if in hiding. It isn't long into conversation before you perceive, through his visible struggle to articulate, how language exists as a rope between intention and expression; Chaikin grabs the rope each time he wants to say something, and often it slips from his hands. After a while you feel for the awesome physical effort it takes for him to break through the grip of silence.

"The play is a journey from before the stroke," Van Itallie said. "A busy, competent, highly creative individual is struck as if by lightning. We see his journey downward, so to speak, then his coming back and making a conscious decision to live. His ego has been destroyed. His life has to be rebuilt. I feel it's significant that the stroke began with the literal opening of his heart. Out of the vulnerability comes a tremendous loving."

"I was emerging," Chaikin said. "Every minute I was changing."

"It's like a hallucinogenic trip," Van Itallie said. "In the classical sense, I think it wants to be a comedy."

Perhaps the thought of humor in despair led Chaikin to say, "Sam Beckett is funny. I'm not depression now. Beckett is profound depression. But funny. I met him, two days, five years ago, then four years after. He has different rhythms of music. I couldn't live without music."

Chaikin speaks like a Beckett character now, but in certain respects he always has, at least in the works he's done that pertain directly to his inner experience, such as "Savage/Love" and "Tongues," two works written in collaboration with Sam Shepard which Chaikin toured in and brought to Taper, Too, in 1980. Like Beckett, Chaikin prefers language scrubbed bare as an instrument to explore the deepest states of thought and feeling. His fragmented syntax acts as a kind of aesthetic shorthand, a pipeline to direct experience.

"I enjoyed Holly . . . "--he struggled with the word; so many words sound like so many other words--"Halloween," he said, by way of trying to articulate his initial childhood attraction to the theater. "Playing is similar to theater. Imagination comes from play. I couldn't as a child play without imagination. In the beginning there was the play and the masks, the body and brain."

Chaikin was born in September, 1935, in Brooklyn (his father taught Hebrew and Russian, and he has three sisters and a brother). As a child, he came down with rheumatic fever. The family was poor, and he was sent to the National Children's Cardiac Home in Florida.

"I was under the impression that when you went to the children's home it became a social outlet for you to lead children in games, so you could create a home away from home," Van Itallie said, looking at Chaikin.

"Yes," Chaikin replied. "I was interested about acting. I was good."

Chaikin eventually rejoined his family, which had relocated to Des Moines, Iowa, where he spent his adolescence. He enrolled at Drake University as a philosophy and drama student. In the mid-'50s, he went to New York where he studied with prominent teachers such as Herbert Berghoff, Viola Spolin and Nina Chilton. He played a number of relatively conventional stage roles and in 1959 met Judith Molina and Julian Beck and joined their Living Theater. It was one of those significant meetings in the history of an art where the chemistry of ideas, methods, personalities and historical moment combine to create something dynamically new.

"The Living Theater had been moving along two lines, the poetic and the political," William Coco said. "It wasn't until the early '60s that they began to merge. It was in 1963, when they toured Europe, that they became the interesting theater we know. And once Joe joined them, the commercial theater seemed far less appealing to him."

Chaikin nonetheless struggled; he wanted to act, but acting didn't fulfill him. He was well-received in his portrayal of Leach in Jack Gelber's "The Connection," for example, but he didn't enjoy the role. He had similar experience with others, but his 1962 portrayal of Galy Gay in the Living Theatre production of Brecht's "Man Is Man," was a turning point. Not only did it represent his critical emergence (he won a 1963 Obie Award), but his preparation for the role opened up in him a new field of deliberation on the actor's relationship to his character, and the individual within the actor's relationship to both.

"The Becks were the only ones who understood Brecht's idea that the theater should take on a social and political responsibility similar to what the Greeks felt--a civic responsibility--not what Brecht called 'culinary theater,' " Coco said.

"Brecht felt the theater should take a role in transforming society. Galy Gay is a story of transformation; it changed Joe's idea of what a man can do. The production made explicit what the Becks wanted to do, and Joe embodied that ethic. After that production, the Living Theater was never the same."

The idea of transformation, of what happens to the organism when it tries to find an interpretive structure for a subjective experience and then reveal it in a communal context, "to trick the phantom of truth out of hiding" as Norman Mailer once put it, became uppermost in Chaikin's mind.

How do you theatrically articulate your most private, difficult-to-grasp sensations in getting to the bottom of yourself, without succumbing to hoo-ha navel-gazing? How do you bring an audience into the process, knowing that words tend to stale the moment they hit the air?

Chaikin was now rediscovering the theater the way he first came to it as a kid. Its uses to him were psychic, not political. (He had been jailed a couple of times with the Living Theater, and though he recalls being a protester, he can't remember what it is he was protesting against.) "I'm very stupid about politics," he says. "I'm even more naive now." Therefore, when the Living Theatre made its 1963 European tour, he stayed home and began developing his theories with a small group he had formed within the Living Theatre called the Open Theatre.

He won two more Obies in the next two years (for roles in "The Brig" and Brecht's "The Exception and the Rule"), but the obscure SoHo loft in which Chaikin worked with his Open Theatre ensemble housed his most innovative work to come.

The Open Theatre's first commercial venture was writer-director Megan Terry's "Viet Rock" in 1966. Chaikin then directed one of the segments of Van Itallie's "America Hurrah," which became the most successful Off-Broadway production up to that time (it also played in London). Chaikin worried aloud that the Open Theatre was in danger of being corrupted by fame and commercial pressure, and once again kept the theater out of the general public eye.

Once "The Serpent: A Ceremony" opened however, international attention was unavoidable (it opened in Italy in 1968 and came to New York the following year). Based on the Book of Genesis and scripted by Van Itallie, it represented the fruition of Chaikin's ideas on ensemble expression and in retrospect remains the revolutionary work of the '60s (though Van Itallie considers Peter Brook's "Marat/Sade" the era's "summa of production," as he put it; Chaikin did not disagree).

With a series of collaborative pieces called "The Terminal," "The Mutation Show" and "Nightwalk" (where Chaikin and Sam Shepard were first professionally linked, in 1973), the Open Theatre had a productive history that lasted 17 years. After dissolving the theater, Chaikin continued directing, and acting in, critically well-regarded productions, including Van Itallie's adaptation of "The Seagull," "A Fable," "Woyzeck" and "The Dybbuk" (the latter two at the Public Theater). He's also continued experimental work (his 1977 Winter project was formed around Open Theatre veterans).

Chaikin remains relatively unknown outside the theater, not because he's necessarily an esoteric figure, but because the theater is not a mass medium and Chaikin is sensitive to the atmosphere of theatrical moment and psychological exchange, which can never be precisely duplicated. He takes us to a plane of heightened deliberation which is instantly apparent in, for example, "War in Heaven" which recalls the ancient Greek depiction of Tiresias "wandering between the upper and lower worlds."

It begins, in Chaikin's characteristically meditative, hypnotic voice, "I died the day I was born, and became an angel on that day. Since then, there are no days, there is no time. I am here by mistake. I'm not sure now how it happened. I crushed, I know I crushed in these streets. I came down. I don't know what went wrong. I was a part of something. I remember being a member. I was moving. I had certain orders, a mission. I had small . . . principalities, dominions. I'm not sure now how it fit, where it fit, exactly. I know there were those above me and there were those below, but I'm not sure now where I fit."

Of Chaikin, Coco said, "He has a way of materializing his most inexpressible desires and unspoken thoughts and of carrying an audience into a new space of understanding."

Said Van Itallie, "Joe's physical life has become such a metaphor for everything else in his life. It has so many implications." He recalled Treplev's line from "The Seagull," "It's not a question of old or new forms, it's a question of writing straight from the heart."

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