THE LITTLE ELEPHANT IS DEAD. Written, directed and with music by Kobo Abe. Settings, costumes and props by Machi Abe; lighting by Tatsuo Kono. Translated by Ian Hideo Levy. At the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater through Saturday.

An alien culture swept down on the Kennedy Center last night, overpowered the officials charged with preventing such things, hijacked the Terrace Theater, and performed a dazzling multi-media assault on drama as we know it.

The alien culture's name is Kobo Abe and, to be strictly accurate about this, he did not come here uninvited. His "exhibition of images" entitled "The Little Elephant Is Dead" came as part of "Japan Today," a touring arts festival under the joint sponsorship of the American and Japanese governments.

But Abe sees himself as an outcast, and last night's audience-whatever their other emotions when the performance had ended-registered near-unanimous shock that they had seen what they had seen where they had seen it. The shock, all in all, was a pleasant one.

While "The Gin Game's" Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy were hurling old-fashioned verbiage at each other in the Eisenhower Theater downstairs, the actors on the Terrace's stage were working with other instruments - searchlights, sheets, stilts, tennis rackets, movie projectors, apples and their own fluid bodies.

At one point, two men dressed as wrestlers battled over a basketball sandwiched between their torsos, while a hyperactive referee kept blowing his whistle and pulling the contestants' hair, and two white-faced figures on stilts, draped in shaggy red capes, tossed a pair of apples back and forth, taking periodic bites from them. That was at one point.

When the action was not transpiring on top of a vast white sheet that covered most of the stage and receded into a kind of fireplace at the rear, it was transpiring underneath the sheet.

Sometimes the sheet was translucent, with flowing bodies and brightly colored lights visible underneath. At other times it became an opaque, quivering mass, shaped by the actors inside into a huge animal-perhaps the elephant of the title. At still other times, it was pumped full of air and threatened to occupy the whole theater.

Although bits of text accompanied last night's visual feast, Abe's work defies words-his own as well as any critic's.

The history of multi-media theater in an unfortunate one, by and large, confirming and reconfirming the premise that more is usually less. Abe is a definite threat to turn this trend around. CAPTION: Picture, Scene from Kobo Abe's "The Little Elephant Is Dead," by Harry Naltchayan-The Washington Post