Merlin is coming, but he's not in Camelot anymore.
Think of the magician-master of King Arthur's court, and you are likely to conjure up images of a kindly old man in a long gown, casting a glance over the kingdom as the subjects sing a Rodgers and Hammerstein tune.
Or, you might think of the more violent and mystical world of John Boorman's film "Excalibur."
You might even think--if you had the unlucky chance to catch it before its quick Broadway demise--of "Merlin," the Doug Henning version.
Wipe all of those images away, urges Ronald Allan-Lindblom, director of the "Merlin" that arrives tonight at Cal State Long Beach's Studio Theatre, care of California Repertory Company.
This is no conventional visit to the Round Table, but German playwright Tankred Dorst's massive treatment of the Arthurian legend as a metaphor for world history.
It's an epic concept at an epic length of seven hours divided into two parts. They can be viewed on successive evenings or together in a marathon Saturday afternoon-and-evening performance. By any measure, "Merlin" is the most ambitious production by the campus's resident professional company in its four-year life.
Dorst, who is 68 and still a dominant playwright in German theater, took the basic tale, as told by Sir Thomas Malory in "Le Morte D'Arthur," and expanded it into a sprawling vision embracing a kaleidoscope of styles from cabaret to theater of the absurd to the operatic.
His version, with his frequent collaborator Ursula Ehler, ran 9 1/2 hours in its 1981 premiere at the Dusseldorf Schauspielhaus.
Subsequent Dorst versions ran longer or shorter, but in whatever form, the epic gained a legendary status even in a national theater scene accustomed to the grand gesture.
"When I was visiting Germany in 1988," says Cal Rep artistic director Howard Burman, "I would ask what the most interesting play was. Other titles were mentioned, but the one people always came back to was 'Merlin.' "
Although this marks "Merlin's" American premiere in full production, it first crossed the ocean in a 1990 workshop production by director Pavel Cerny at Hollywood's First Stage.
"The First Stage workshop was when Howard and I first heard the play," Allan-Lindblom recalled, "and we found it to be remarkable."
Cal Rep has assembled its staging "from the ground up," said Allan-Lindblom, a graduate of Boston University and of the first class of the Pacific Conservatory of the Arts in Santa Maria-Solvang.
"The work really began with the actors and me, around the table, with them looking at me and saying, 'OK, Ron, what the hell are we going to do with this?' It was my job to have the answers," he said. "If what you see up there doesn't work, blame me, not Mr. Dorst."
Working from a 229-page script supplied by Dorst's German publisher, Allan-Lindblom said: "Such a text, with 265 roles and 97 scenes done in completely different styles, can be, well, very intimidating. But I know this group--our pros like Greg Mortensen and Richard Gang and Ashley Carr--and can gauge their emotions. And right now, after nine weeks of rehearsal, the cast is on a real high."
But how to contend with a story that envisions, among other things, Merlin fathered by the Devil himself, a pair of dragons bursting from below onto the stage, and crowd scenes calling for hundreds?
"By metaphor," Allan-Lindblom stated calmly. "Everybody keeps saying that this is an impossible script. Nah, it's not impossible. Remember, we're doing this on a budget." Actual production costs were not available at press time.
"We are depicting a lot of the spectacle by suggestion, and with Holly Harbinger's choreography. For instance, when Dorst writes that a water fountain bursts around Merlin and his love Viviane, this is staged with dancers. I want to let Dorst provide the spectacle, through his language and action."
Allan-Lindblom, though, is well acquainted with the theater of spectacle both as an actor and collaborator with Josef Svoboda, founder of the revered Czech theater, Laterna Magika.
He played the title role of Svoboda's "The Black Monk" at Detroit's Hilberry Theatre (then run by Burman), and subsequently worked in Prague with Svoboda, who is known for his use of multiple projection screens and complex visual effects.
"He is my hero," said Allan-Lindblom, "and I would say that our 'Merlin' is Svoboda-inspired to the extent that he's devoted to metaphors, and not any sort of realism, on stage.
"But you need a real grounding to either direct or sit through a seven-hour play," he added. "For me, it's the theme of idealism: how it grows and how it collapses. That was a theme in 'Camelot,' too, but with Dorst, it's much, much deeper.
"Just by having Merlin reject his father the Devil for a life of goodness already takes the story to a larger realm," he said.
Dorst's own pessimism--the play ends with the Devil describing the death of the planet--derives from his dislike of all ideologies, a by-product of his youth in Nazi Germany.
But none of this, the Cal Rep artists know, connects with an American audience.
"We don't want to make this sound impossibly difficult," Allan-Lindblom said, "because it can be enjoyed for the rich variety of music (by Justus Matthews and Michael Kocab) and dance and the King Arthur legend.
"We also know that this might be a crash-and-burn mission, and, artistically, we're out on a limb. But I'd rather be doing this, with all due respect to Arthur Miller, than another 'Death of a Salesman.' "
* California Repertory Company's production of Tankred Dorst's "Merlin" opens tonight at 8 at Cal State Long Beach, 7th Street and West Campus Drive, Long Beach. Regular schedule (with parts I and II on alternating evenings and both parts presented on Saturday): Wednesdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Saturdays, 2 p.m. $15 (for each part); $25 (for both parts). Ends May 14. (310) 985-7000.