Meredith Monk's theater pieces are ceremonies for our times. She is the shaman who elucidates the mysteries of the imagination. She is the alchemist who transforms everyday objects and events into artifacts that hold the keys to individual and collective memories. She is the archaeologist who, in resurrecting our past, points the way toward a richer, more wonder-filled future.

In collaboration with Ping Chong, director of the multimedia Fiji Company, Monk last night presented her "travelogue" in two acts, "Paris/Venice/Milan," at the Kennedy Center's Terrace Theater. This work presents impressions of these cities and of the people within them as a tapestry of images.

The landscape of "Paris," that architectural wonder and cradle of culture, is evoked by Chong and Monk without props or sets. Strolling hand-in-hand through the streets, singing a wordless song, they explore every byway: living in the city, moving in it, and being moved by it.

The length of their journey is incalculable: The seasons change, and they don coats; at times they are young and free, at others, old and feeble. Appearing to cover great distances, they barely move out of place. They even walk offstage, but continue singing as though they have just turned down an alleyway. These everyday gestures gradually break into violence and frenzy. Lost in twisting side streets, a Montmartre of the fantasy, they move between the worlds of reality and imagination.

In "Venice/Milan," Chong and Monk are joined by members of Monk's company, The House, who depict the rites of these ancient city-states: diplomacy, seduction, spying and partying. These intrigues are contrasted with the peaceful rhythms of the Gondolier who continues rowing, fishing and plying her trade despite the machinations of society. The Paris Couple innocently moves through this society, puzzled and overwhelmed by its rigid conventions and corruptions. Monk and Chong chant a folkish tune, and are ridiculed by the partygoers, who sing Purcell's "Man Is for the Woman Made."

The entire fabric of society is shown to be permeated by evil. While a narrator intones the Seven Deadly Sins, a coven of female monks lays the bricks for the foundation of the city. The Gondolier dies through the Machiavellian scheming of a mysterious masked man in 18th century garb. Through a fog, Monk and Chong, holding flashlights, search out tableaux of gargoyles and saints. The Paris Couple illuminates the stinking darkness.

Monk has been creating this total conception of nonverbal, nonliteral theater for well over a decade. There are obvious parallels with the imagistic theater of Robert Wilson, but Monk does it all herself: choreographing, composing, dancing, singing and designing, as well as directing.

The program will be repeated tonight and Thursday at 7:30.