The nightmare of our times is the prospect of universal destruction. How fitting that the Brooklyn Academy of Music's ever-prophetic "Next Wave" festival should have opened this season -- amid election-year "star wars" debates -- with "The Games," a multimedia collaboration by Meredith Monk and Ping Chong that confronts the specter head-on.

One of the distinctive traits of human mentality is what has been called "the imagination of disaster" -- our ability to fantasize individual or collective annihilation. There's nothing new in this, and as far as nuclear holocaust is concerned, popular epics on the subject range from at least as far back as Stanley Kubrick's sardonic "Dr. Strangelove" in 1964 to TV's "The Day After." What's novel about "The Games" is that Monk and Chong have mobilized all the resources of contemporary avant-garde performance techniques and used them to probe far more deeply into the psychic nerve centers of our terror.

In "The Games," the inconceivable has already taken place, long ago. This abstract, postnuclear fable presents its vision from the standpoint of an unspecified future, looking back on pre-Bomb humanity as a distant, dimly perceived memory. The subtitle of the piece (in German, because the commissioned world premiere took place last year in West Berlin) is "Erinnerung an Heute," which might be translated "Remembrances of Things Present." We're shown a world in which all that remains of earlier civilization is the notion of life as a game -- a ritual, now raised to the level of sacred exercise, played out according to tightly prescribed rules. It's a world whose masters believe that only rigidly enforced "order" can prevent the species from repeating its suicide.

"The Games," however, is by no means all grimness. Like "Strangelove," it is pervaded with carbolic humor, smiling through its own grotesqueries and suggesting that laughter may be the remedy of last resort for a society one step from ultimate madness.

The American premiere of "The Games" in BAM's "Next Wave" (the first performance was last Tuesday, the final one tonight; a national tour is planned) is also a landmark in the still burgeoning career of Meredith Monk, who this year celebrates 20 years of creative activity as a dancer, choreographer, composer, director, singer and filmmaker.

Her extraordinary short film, "Ellis Island," which won two festival awards and aired on PBS last year, was shown this past week at the Hirshhorn Museum. Some may recall the startling group work called "Tour: Dedicated to Dinosaurs" Monk presented at the Smithsonian's Museum of Natural History in 1969, a few years after she began making innovative waves at New York's Judson Theater. In 1981, she and her troupe, The House, performed some of her chamber works -- earlier collaborations with Ping Chong -- at the Kennedy Center's Terrace Theater. Her very individual, primal-sounding musical scores have won her six ASCAP prizes. The celebration of her 20th anniversary will include a Carnegie Hall debut this February, a film/video retrospective at the Whitney Museum next spring, and a revival at LaMama of her profound, operatic "Quarry." Monk will also return to Washington next month (Nov. 13) for a solo concert at the Hirshhorn.

"The Games" illustrates the collaborative methods of Monk's larger scale, multimedia works. Dubbed "an opera/music-theater" collaboration by its authors, the opus was conceived and directed by Monk and Chong. Monk provided the music (solo song, choral chants and instrumental passages, both live and taped); the choreography, in collaboration with Chong and Gail Turner; and also, in alternation with Branislav Tomich, the mime-dance-vocal portrayal of the central character of the Gamemaster -- a combination leader-umpire-enforcer who presides over the actions of the five Players.

Chong wrote the multilingual text, with an assist from Monk, and created the audiovisual components of the production, with Jan Hartley. Beverly Emmons -- one of the master magicians of contemporary theater -- designed the lighting. The striking sets and costumes were the work of Yoshio Yabara. The performing forces also included four instrumentalists, an on-stage chorus framing the games and a pair of mysterious "Caretakers," who oversee the rites from the start.

Silver paneling rings the stage at BAM's Opera House, edged with lava-like ridges at floor level. On a central dais upstage, a large circular object, odd arrowheads revolving within it, seems to symbolize the eternal "game" of planetary rotation. Waves of windlike sound and ghostly chanting bring the audience to silence, and as electric keyboards intone a rocking ostinato, two giant screens aloft light up with stylized images of nebulae, comets, galaxies and eventually the Earth, as seen from space.

Another, recurring image -- of a grid with colored dots -- evokes the Japanese board game called Go. After a brief blackout, the stage brightens as the robed Players, waving huge flags, enter followed by the Chorus and, finally, by the Gamemaster (Monk), lugging a microphone and blowing a whistle to signal the start of the ceremonies. A voice, in German, makes cryptic announcements, translated into English on the screens -- statements like "form must be maintained . . . it was decided that the Games must be maintained, for all time."

Monk then sets things in motion by lifting the mike and, heaving to and fro like a rock singer, crooning in her croaking, wailing, characteristically weird-funny-primeval fashion. When the games begin in earnest, they first allude to children's pastimes like red-light, giant steps, blindman's buff, statues, and the like. Later there are "memory games," with monologues, whispers and half-lucid reminiscences by the Players, and quiz games and games that summon up images of vicious competition, rat races, and tugs-of- See DANCE, G13, Col. 1 DANCE, From G1 war -- one passage involves a pun between the German "vier" (the number four) and the English "fear," which are pronounced alike, while Monk, rolling metal balls in her hand like Captain Queeg, exclaims "there is nothing to fear" and the Players shrink into terrified clusters.

Towards the end of the 90-minute performance, Monk reappears on an emptied stage, once again on the dais, recapitulating the start of the games with her crooning bit. There follows the climactic image of the whole piece -- the reentry of the Players as astronauts, in space-suits -- between Emmons' uncanny lighting effects and the ingenious Yabara costuming, the scene looks exactly like a holographic reproduction of the first Moon landing, complete with a flag implanted on lunar soil. The melding of past and future that seemed the connecting thread of the entire work here finds its final, ambivalent expression, as the players mimic the slow, poignant gait of the moonwalkers -- at once gaily buoyant and infinitely tender and sad. After the exit of the spacemen, a lone figure in a hermit's habit -- the space missionary of posterity? -- wends a path across the stage blowing a wan tune on a bagpipe, as the screens display a picture of Earth diminishing into unknown chasms. Then darkness, and end.

Not all was well with "The Games." Monk's performance was vibrant throughout with her typical mixture of bewitching eccentricity, oddball wit and pungent imagination, and the company of performers worked together with the kind of organic rapport that comes only with a long-nurtured oneness of spirit and craft. But the performance only fitfully reached the heights of mythic exaltation so pronounced in Monk's finest previous work -- such as "Quarry" and "Recent Ruins" -- in which the multitude of sensory elements appear to fuse into a transcendent, revelatory whole. Perhaps what was missing was a proper equilibrium between Monk's deeply intuitive, fundamentally musical style, and Chong's more cerebral idiom of ironic caricature. In any case, a few sections -- like the anomalous intrusion of a '20s pop song and Charleston dancing -- seemed jarringly out of kilter with the surrounding material.

But the impact of a work like "The Games" lies much more in its overall resonance and invention than in formal details, and in these terms, the opus must be counted a major, provocative endeavor. While the commercial stage perseveres in its superficial course with such basically empty baubles as the flashy, mawkish "Cats," or the pseudo-intellectual humbug of "Amadeus," it is left to such institutions as BAM and the "Next Wave" festival to remind us that the art of the theater is supposed to have something to do with life, and its most disquieting enigmas.