Apparently Theodore Bikel didn't learn that rule of polite society: Never discuss religion or politics in public. Appearing in "The Disputation" at Theater J through Oct. 2, the actor, folk singer and activist hopes to generate plenty of talk on both topics.

"To do this in Washington, a place where religious fundamentalism has the upper hand at the highest levels of the government," is important, Bikel says with fervor.

"The Disputation," written by British scholar Hyam Maccoby, dramatizes a debate in Spain in 1263 between Pablo Christiani, a Dominican friar and convert from Judaism, and Rabbi Moses Ben Nachman (played by Bikel). Christiani was to use his knowledge of the Talmud and Old Testament to reason with the rabbi and convert him to Christianity. Instead, the rabbi turned the colloquy into a defense of Jewish beliefs and a critique of medieval Christianity and its portrayal of Jews.

Bikel, who also performed "The Disputation" in Florida, argues (though some critics disagree) that the piece, which is partly based on accounts written by the rabbi and the Dominicans, is "not just a didactic enterprise. It has great human interest. It has humor."

Edward Gero, who plays Christiani, says of Bikel, "It's wonderful to have that much excitement about what you stand for and to stand up and say it. Washington is so correct. And he's not interested in that. He's interested in sharing his truth."

Gero praises the actor's "enormous generosity of spirit onstage and off" and adds that the 81-year-old Bikel is "a raconteur of the first water," ready with stories about "anybody from Bob Dylan to Frank Zappa to Laurence Olivier." Add to that reminiscences about leaving Vienna as the Nazis entered, or dancing with Marilyn Monroe at the Actors Studio.

Anyone who co-founded the Newport Folk Festival, was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his Southern sheriff role in "The Defiant Ones" (1958), played the original Capt. von Trapp and many a Tevye, and headed Actors Equity for almost 10 years is bound to have lots of tales, opinions and energy.

"We basically set aside a half an hour of rehearsal every day so he [could] tell stories," says director Nick Olcott, who notes Bikel "has more jokes on file than anyone I've ever met."

John Lescault, who plays James I, ruler of Aragon, says of working with Bikel, "I feel like a slacker. I'm nearly half his age. The sheer amount of energy that the man has -- a lust for life that is palpable."

Go West, Young Women

True Colors, the Atlanta-based production company that plans to bring some of its shows to the Lincoln Theatre each year, has opened its second offering there, after last season's "Tambourines to Glory."

In "Flyin' West" by Pearl Cleage, four African American women -- two of them born into slavery -- are homesteaders in an all-black Kansas town called Nicodemus in 1898. Two are sisters, the others are adopted family. The play runs through Sept. 25.

"Part of what the play is dealing with is the necessity of African American people after the Civil War to build new families, because their families had been sold away," Cleage says. "These women became sisters even though they weren't related."

Theatergoers may recall that the Kennedy Center presented "Flyin' West" in 1994 with Ruby Dee. Arena Stage did Cleage's "Blues for an Alabama Sky" in 1996 with Phylicia Rashad. Cleage's novels include "Babylon Sisters" and "What Looks Like Crazy on an Ordinary Day."

Commissioned by the Alliance Theatre Company in Atlanta, "Flyin' West" premiered in 1992, directed by Kenny Leon, then that group's artistic director. Leon now heads True Colors, and recently staged August Wilson's "Radio Golf" in Los Angeles. He'll also direct the play on Broadway and at Baltimore's Center Stage.

Cleage says the first character that came to her was the frail but great-souled ex-slave Miss Leah. "I realized that I was going to have to do a lot of reading and thinking about this, because I didn't know much about the black settlements," the writer recalls. Like most Americans, she says, "my knowledge of the settling of the West was shaped by the movies . . . you don't really think about the diversity and all the different kinds of people who were there.

"We still don't have a way of presenting our history to most people that includes the whole story."

The True Colors production, directed by Andrea Frye, began at the National Black Arts Festival in Atlanta and after Washington will tour three Georgia cities.

Washington Stage Guild's Season Opener

The Washington Stage Guild will open its 20th season, under the theme Let's Pretend, with "If We Are Women" (Oct. 27-Nov. 27) by Canadian writer Joanna McClelland Glass. Steven Carpenter will direct the intergenerational family story, featuring June Hansen, Jewell Robinson and Lynn Steinmetz. Carpenter also will stage "An Empty Plate in the Cafe du Grand Boeuf" (Jan. 5-Feb. 5) by Michael Hollinger, whose medieval farce "Incorruptible" was a surprise hit for the Stage Guild this past season. "Empty Plate" is about a wealthy man who maintains a top Paris restaurant where he is the only patron -- until he sits at his table, brokenhearted, and decides to starve himself to death.

Artistic Director John MacDonald will direct "Fanny's First Play" (March 2-April 2) by George Bernard Shaw, about a proud father who invites the critics to see his daughter's first attempt at playwriting. The season will end with Ferenc Molnar's "The Play's the Thing" (April 20-May 21), adapted by P.G. Wodehouse, again directed by MacDonald. It portrays a team of playwrights scrambling to save their favorite leading lady from scandal and their composer from heartbreak. The Stage Guild performs at 1901 14th St. NW. Call 240-582-0050.

Follow Spots

* Three new works in progress will be read tomorrow, Thursday and Friday in Arena Stage's Old Vat Room. Tomorrow's piece will be "Thrash," about skateboarding, by Wendy MacLeod in collaboration with Arena's Wendy C. Goldberg. The Thursday offering will be "The Bigger Man," by Sam Marks, about a guy who tries to stop his ex-girlfriend from marrying. And Friday's piece will be "The Bluest Eye," adapted from Toni Morrison's novel by Lydia Diamond. Tickets are $5. Visit www.arenastage.org.

* Washington-based actor Floyd King will go solo in Doug Wright's tour de force "I Am My Own Wife" at Philadelphia's Wilma Theater tomorrow through Oct. 23. Visit www.wilmatheater.org.

* Ford's Theatre will donate half the proceeds from ticket sales at its Sept. 23 preview of Ken Ludwig's "Leading Ladies" to hurricane relief.

* Olney Theatre Center's National Players will preview "Dracula" tomorrow and Thursday and "The Taming of the Shrew" Sept. 21-22. Because of incorrect information provided by Olney, the dates were reversed in last week's column.

The stories he can tell: Theodore Bikel (with Edward Gero), appearing in "The Disputation" at Theater J.