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Preserving languages

A Tlingit 'Macbeth'

WASHINGTON - English is the first oral language in which all Native peoples of North America can speak to each other. Shakespeare's dramatic verse has won a cherished place in cultures the world over. Native cultures throughout North America seek to preserve their languages in an overwhelmingly English linguistic setting.

A Tlingit-language production of ''Macbeth,'' at the National Museum of the American Indian for six performances ending March 18, appears to be the first and fullest exploration of the potential in these three facts. Indeed, three weird sisters appear as these words are written. They cook up a sliver of Shakespearean inspiration, predicting that Native-language versions of Shakespeare on the Tlingit model will sweep the Indian nations, providing Native youth with a culturally sound approach to classic art and saving a host of Native languages along the way.

Away with them. Knowing our ''Macbeth,'' we know they are tricksters. A cultural revolution of that kind will only be achieved as the Tlingit achieved it - through the inspiration of a handful, the dedicated hard work of a handful or two more, stage training for a few and a fair amount of good fortune. It could never be a sweeping thing as we usually construe that word; it could only be the work of endless dedication, quiet but inspired.

Still, that's the kind of dedication Native communities are known to specialize in. And the project that produced a Tlingit ''Macbeth'' would travel well to other Shakespeare plays and other Native cultures ... if anyone were tempted.

The Perseverance Theatre's ''Macbeth,'' following an already complex evolution, arrived at a memorable decision. In the account of director Anita Maynard-Losh, ''we embraced the challenge of increasing the amount of Tlingit language used in the piece, eventually coming to the idea that when characters were adhering to the cultural imperative of putting the good of the group first, they would speak Tlingit, and when putting their individual ambitions first, they would speak English.''

As written, that sounds like a recipe for overly directive interpretation, not to mention eternal hairsplitting over the nuance of lines like ''Double double toil and trouble'' and ''If you can look into the seeds of time/And say which grains will grow and which will not,/Speak then to me, who neither beg nor fear/Your favors nor your hate.'' But on stage, as guided by solid theatrical choices, guess what? It works exceptionally well. The Tlingit passages clip along with a music and power of their own; what magic it must have been for the cast, most of them Alaska Natives, to make the remarkable translation of Johnny Marks (as assisted by Tlingit elders) sing alongside the original, at no point letting it down. With the Shakespearean text projected on screens at the back of NMAI's Rasmuson Theater, one sensed nothing amiss.

As for the scenes in English, they contained the more famous lines of a drama thick with them, from ''Out damned spot'' to ''Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow'' and all the rest. Here again, the Perseverance Theatre troupe played up to the material.

Among many fine roles, at least one performance bears singling out. Allan Hayton, playing the comic Porter scene in a Tlingit-tinged mask, hat and fright wig that couldn't have been any better suited, captured the anarchic charm of this acclaimed ruffian in an impressive feat of acting. Here's hoping Hayton (who, by the way, got his start on the stage at Haskell Indian Nations University) has a Falstaff role in his future.

A final word on the stagecraft, design and costuming. ''Macbeth'' was well-chosen for the Tlingit-language project because as the most straightforward of Shakespeare's tragedies, it was easier to follow than others might have been. But it is also an occasion of mists and mysteries, obscure spirits and plain old ghosts. A stage saturated in Tlingit culture, down to the sea mists that characterize southeast Alaska, did essential justice to this dimension of the drama as well, though not everything worked. Banquo's ghost in Tlingit costume was harrowing, the voodoo dolls of the weird sisters less so. The harsh red coloration associated with southeast Alaska Native art was the perfect mood lighting for one scene after another, but somehow it didn't work as blood. And if the Orson Welles version has survived a decapitated papier-mache figurine, the Tlingit ''Macbeth'' will survive a highly unconvincing, smallish doll's head as the mortal remains of Macbeth the tyrant.

Now, about that Falstaff role for Mr. Hayton. A Native-language ''Henry V,'' anyone?