In the most privileged moments in the life of the theater, the stage becomes a place that's holy, and the performance seems to return to its roots in ancient ritual. What transpires there is like an interlocution with the gods, a seeking after humanity's place in the divine scheme of things. Most theater, like most entertainment and much that passes for art, is in the nature of escape. This other kind of theater, rare in any age, plunges headfirst into the abyss of ultimate questions -- whatever is glorious, terrible, mysterious.

Meredith Monk's "Quarry" -- her Obie Award-winning dance theater work of 1976, which began a week's run at the Kennedy Center's Free Theater last night -- partakes of this quality unmistakably. It's not in any way solemn or heavy-handed. There are parts that evoke the grimmest of feelings and associations, but there are also parts that are funny and lyrical. Essentially, though, it confronts the paradox of human extremes -- transcendent compassion and equally transcendent cruelty. It's mystifying as well as mysterious, but it's also a work that makes one feel transfigured by the experience.

"Quarry" was revived in the spring of 1985 as a landmark in Monk's 20 years of achievement in the arts. The Kennedy Center cast is preponderantly that of New York's La Mama staging. Typically, Monk conceived, directed, composed and choreographed the piece, in which she also portrays the central figure of the Child. Her collaborators include designers and technicians of her company, the House, as well as the more than 40 performers who sing, dance, speak, mime and chant. A special kudo goes to Beverly Emmons, whose magical lighting designs are so crucial to the dream world of "Quarry."

That world, as becomes gradually apparent, is the era of World War II and the Holocaust, as filtered through the sensibilities of a young girl. Monk's theater is a tapestry of fragments, wisps and visions, interweaved on many levels at the same time but governed in the large by a grand, flowing rhythm of sight, sound and movement. The transformation begins with the physical space of the Free Theater -- the audience is seated in elevated rows on two sides, peering into the hollow of the long rectangle in between. At the start, a radio plays a strange, wistful Monk song, and the Maid -- the Leporello character of the piece -- dusts randomly and glares skeptically at the audience. We see the Child supine under a patchwork quilt at stage center. As the light rises, we also see clusters of people at the far corners -- a trio of women in country clothes, an Old Testament couple, an elderly, foreign-seeming couple and a flamboyantly dressed woman -- the four points of the Child's emotional compass, so to speak.

The first phase of the work, labeled "Lullaby," summons the period of the '40s in various musical and visual ways, as well as the vague apprehensions of a child in wartime, while clouds gather and toy bombers frighten with menacing noise. The second phase, "March," gets more specific in imagery. One section caricatures six Dictators; there follows a black-and-white film of harrowing effect, shot in a New England stone quarry -- it's at this point that the double-edged meaning of the title, in the sense of excavation (of the past) and of hunted victim, becomes clear. The final, more abstract phase is a "Requiem" for the children, and others, who perished in the Hitlerian nightmare.

No summary description can do justice to the poignance of the work or the unobtrusive virtuosity of the performance. But what we have here is one of the seminal artistic productions of our time. For its presence in Washington we have to thank the principal sponsors -- the American National Theater, District Curators Inc., the House and Washington Project for the Arts, as well as other supporters. "Quarry" repeats nightly through Sunday, with matinees on Saturday and Sunday as well. Admission is free, but available seating is extremely limited.