"I am an excessive being," says Romanian director Lucian Pintilie. "I have always been capable of extraordinary violence. In my youth, I broke a lot of chairs.

"And when I drank -- for there was a time when I drank -- I would drink to such a point that I no longer knew who I was. Really, when I think of the things I once did -- crush out a cigarette on someone's flesh, ransack a whole house -- I cannot recognize myself in those acts. Such anger! But I don't think my temperament has changed with age. The only difference is that, as I get older, I am losing energy. Artistically, I know I still have this great capacity for rage."

Just ask anyone who saw Pintilie's cataclysmic "Tartuffe" at Arena Stage last season. Instead of subscribing to the traditional happy ending, the 52-year-old director pushed the play to the brink and literally brought down the house. Rubble tumbled from the rafters, a huge gaping hole -- in the form of a cross -- opened up in the stage floor. Molie re's characters, buffeted to the point of insanity, piled pell-mell into a helicopter and took off for salvation, while an angelic boys' choir ironically raised its collective voice in celestial praises. It was a momentsw,-2 sk,2 ld,10 of riveting audacity in what was easily the most astonishing production Washington saw all year.

Now Pintilie is back at Arena, bringing his fiercely theatrical intellect to bear on Ibsen's "The Wild Duck," which opens Wednesday in the Kreeger after previews today and Tuesday. It seems fairly safe to expect the unexpected. For some, Ibsen may be a dusty 19th-century playwright, who flailed the hypocrisy and narrow-mindedness of Norwegian society. Pintilie finds the play scaldingly apt for our times. The text, which he has adapted for the occasion, resonates with his personal obsessions. He sees parts of himself in all the characters. To accommodate the fullness of his vision, Arena technicians have had to pull down the back wall of the Kreeger and remove the first two rows of seats.

"The Wild Duck" recounts the plight of a provincial photographer, Hialmar Ekdal, who discovers that his life and marriage are built on a tissue of lies, that his daughter is illegitimate and that his dream of becoming a great inventor is a hollow fantasy. Is it better to let sleeping fictions lie, Ibsen asks, or to expose them to the harsh light of truth?

"There is no solution to this problem," says Pintilie in a hesitant English that he will abandon in the course of the interview for French, a language he speaks more fluently. "The play merely proposes alternatives. There is the fanaticism of the idealists, on one hand; on the other there is the notion that humanity is so fragile that it must take refuge in lies. I know, from my own experience, that I am a weak man and sometimes my own life has been a lie. I am not ashamed of that. At the same time, I recognize in Hialmar a deep moral cowardice. For me, staging this play is a great opportunity to whip that cowardice. If I present a satirical portrait of Hialmar on stage, it is not without thinking of myself first."

He also believes that "The Wild Duck" presents "one of the strongest depictions of society, as a jungle, that I know. Hard, cruel and competitive! But it is also ridden with guilt." The quest for some kind of spiritual salvation has always been a constant in Pintilie's work. What fascinates him in "The Wild Duck" is the notion of a society trying to expiate its sins with the checkbook.

"Only one character in the play, Hialmar's daughter Hedwig, atones for her guilt with her person, and she commits suicide," he explains. "For the others, every act has a price tag on it. For a slap in the face, you pay one price. For a more serious crime, a higher price. There is something unhealthy, dirty, about this. But human beings are so weak that any other solution only destroys them."

In the course of a controversial theatrical career that was cut short in Romania in 1972, but has since flowered in the West, Pintilie has used the classics to explore and dissect the contemporary world. Such practice is common behind the Iron Curtain, where a more overt form of social criticism is likely to encounter official resistance. But how, Pintilie wonders, could "The Wild Duck," with its intertwining themes of guilt, money, fanaticism, power and mendacity, fail to interest Americans today?

"I think that it has a lot of affinities with the American reality," he declares. "America is still a puritan country, the only one in the world that is preoccupied with the mistakes of the past, the only one that has an active guilty conscience. That guilt is often paralyzing. But it also is one of the most positive aspects of this society, which still looks for ways to redeem itself.

"You see this even in so silly a program as 'Dynasty,' this fascination with powerful people, who have great crimes in their past. Week after week, they are called to account and they struggle to reach an arrangement that will keep them going. 'The Wild Duck' is like the most banal soap opera. I could put commercials between the acts. At the same time, it is a masterpiece that examines an eternal human dilemma."

Pintilie is a burly man, whose shaggy beard and tangled hair give him the air of a grizzly bear just emerging from a long winter's sleep. His clothes are rumpled and his hands are better described as mitts. When he walks, he lumbers. Perched on his nose -- and adding an incongruously whimsical note to his appearance -- is a pair of those half-moon reading glasses that Santa sometimes wears in his workshop.

As Pintilie talks, he tilts back his head and closes his eyes. He's tried over the years to force himself to look people straight in the face. But invariably, the head rolls back, the eyelids come down, and it's as if he is retreating into a deep and private dream world. He has the brute strength of one accustomed to digging in and taking a stand, but at the same time, there's something oddly vulnerable about the way he wraps himself protectively in his thoughts. Another man would keep his eyes peeled for reactions. Pintilie gazes inward.

Chary of being misunderstood, ever cognizant of his delicate position as a Romanian citizen working in the West, he rarely talks to the press. In his homeland, he says, his phones are bugged and his movements closely observed: travel visas are accorded with whimsical unpredictability. He spends several months a year in Bucharest, preparing the theatrical productions he stages elsewhere, but his abiding desire is to direct movies for the state-subsidized film industry. The authorities, he says, won't let him.

Although it was completed more than four years ago, his most recent film, "Carnival Scenes," an adaptation of a 19th-century Romanian vaudeville about the temperamental lower-middle classes, has yet to be released by the Romanian government. Ironically, Pintilie's stage version of the very same work was hailed in 1966 and sent abroad with the government's blessings. But times change, and so do regimes. Pintilie has been left out in the cold.

The West has been far more welcoming. Zelda Fichandler, Arena's producing director, calls him "one of the six greatest directors in the world," who "makes old plays yield up perceptions that astonish us with their freshness." Next month Pintilie will direct Bizet's "Carmen" in Vancouver as part of Expo '86, then Pirandello's "Tonight We Improvise" for the Theatre de la Ville in Paris. There is, apparently, no shortage of job offers. But increasingly he has come to look upon theater as a betrayal of his true calling.

"I was built to do another thing, to do movies," he says. "It is my goal in life. I was 18 years old when, in tears, I first told my professor at the Institute of Theater and Film Art that I didn't want to go on with theater. But I am now 52, and in all my life I have made only four films! And the last one has been banned! Perhaps I am a coward, because I didn't explore every single possibility to pursue my calling. But if so, I am a lucid coward, and I suffer because of that.

"What has preoccupied me from the start -- what you will find in every one of my productions -- is a view of man, caught in the gears of society, ground up by the machine. What Sartre calls 'l'engrenage.' It's the modern destiny. My vision has always been very radical, sometimes more radical than the play allows, and I occasionally adapt the text to my own internal needs. More and more, as this vision becomes crystallized in me, I feel that the theater is constricting. I want to be freer, but I don't want to be freer at the expense of the classical play. I have written 25 screenplays. I must be allowed to make them one day."

As his reputation has spread in the West, he says, he senses a softening of the official attitude toward him in Romania. "Last year," he says, "I was summoned by authorities at a very high level and told that they had nothing against my working there. Just after that, I began to put together a film -- based on Chekhov's short story 'The Duel.' But then, I had to leave the country to do a play elsewhere, and during that time, all the petty low-level bureaucrats, who fear that there will be something ideologically incorrect in my films, went into action. It's the same cultural clerks who have been opposing me for 20 years, preventing me from working normally. And I am not there to fight the everyday fight. So the decision gets overturned. Each time, I have to start all over again."

He heaves a sigh. During the cultural thaw of the mid-'60s, Pintilie was able to make two highly acclaimed films -- "Sunday at Six," an account of the Resistance during World War II; and the prize-winning "Reconstruction," a modern morality tale about two rebellious Romanian youths who are forced, with disastrous consequences, to appear in an educational film depicting the folly of their ways.

Pintilie sees "Reconstruction" as "pure Pirandello," an illustration of his conviction that "the theater swallows up and destroys those who participate in it." Finding it "atypical" of Romanian life and riddled with western influences, authorities blocked its release for a year. Today, it is rarely screened in Romania.

"Psychologically, I try to understand this fear they have of me," Pintilie says. "It is true, on one level, my work does not correspond to official art. My vision of the world is crueler, more sarcastic, more satirical. But at the same time, there is a great deal of tenderness underneath. I think you will see this in 'The Wild Duck,' this pity and tenderness I have for the human being, trapped in society's gears. If only the authorities would look a little closer, they, too, would see this and approve my films much more quickly.

"But the bureaucractic mentality is ridiculous. They are stupid people. They live in a nightmare and they see monsters where none exists. But one day, I shall win this bet. I have a mystical conviction that I will make movies again in my country."

Pintilie was born in Tarutino, now a part of the Soviet Union. His father was a teacher of French and Romanian. His mother studied linguistics in school, but "like Gina in 'The Wild Duck,' " Pintilie says, "she was completely swallowed up by the daily housework, destroyed by les pommes de terre!" He has a younger sister, an actress, who now resides in Switzerland.

At an early age, his father took him to the theater. But it was the cinema that excited him. "After the war, from 1945 to 1947, we we able to see all the masterpieces of the American cinema -- the Buster Keatons and the Charlie Chaplins. My first staging was profoundly influenced by all the gags in the American cinema. But we also saw the films of the Russian avant-garde -- the Eisensteins, the Von Stroheims. Conditions under the dictatorship of the proletariat were very hard, but I was lucky. I managed to see all the formative films of the world cinema. It was an extraordinary schooling."

After university, he began working in provincial Romanian theaters, but his ability to inspire controversy was already evident and unfailingly, he says, his productions were stopped before he could finish them. Retrenching, he joined the Nottara Theater in Bucharest, staging coventionally realistic versions of what were deemed acceptable Romanian and Soviet plays. "For five or six years," he says, "I behaved, for a simple reason: Things hadn't ripened in me."

Then in 1965, he was hired by the Bulandra Theatre in Bucharest, which under the direction of Liviu Ciulei was working a revolution in the Romanian theater, sweeping away the cobwebs with daring, experimental productions. (Ciulei has since moved to the United States and pursued a highly lauded theatrical career here -- most recently, as artistic director of the Tyrone Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis.)

"My first production for Liviu was 'The Idiots in the Moonlight' -- a satire that appeared dangerous at the time, but seems rather inoffensive today. It was based on the idea that human monsters have ideals, an inner life, a sentimental side. It was banned immediately. For the first time in my life, I tried to accommodate the censors by toning down the production. They came back, saw it and banned it again. So once again, I gave in and softened the production even more. I remember the day they came for the third time, watched the show and then left without saying a word. That was when I realized that you can never negotiate with that kind of stupidity. You must never appeal to the taste of the majority. There is nothing to be gained. You merely destroy the dignity of the work.

"A great transformation took place in me. I understood that each production is a bet -- one you win or lose -- but you must never compromise. As long as I worked hestitantly and tried not to say too much about myself and my preoccupations, I had no reputation at all. The day I chose to speak out -- to express myself audaciously, without shame or calculation -- my reputation came with extraordinary speed. From then on, the public saw a troubled, probing Pintilie who provoked scandals, anger and outrage.

"Theoretically, a totalitarian regime prohibits masterpieces in art. But that is not true. The artist can function under constraints, play with them, manipulate them. I believe deeply in the power of the creative imagination. Humanity is forever torn between the fear and the joy of living. Authoritarian regimes attempt to exploit that fear. But the creative force tames it, inhibits it, annuls it."

He concedes that he can be blasphemous, but points out that "in every one of my spectacles, the idea of blasphemy is fundamentally linked to the spirit of the carnival. At carnival time, for three days a year, there is an armistice between the populace and official authority. Three days, during which the imagination reigns, fears are exorcised and the world is turned upside down. For me, it is very simple. Three days are not enough. We must extend this period."

In Pintilie's case, the carnival screeched to a stop in 1972, when the curtain went up on his production of "The Inspector General" at the Bulandra. Dramatically rethinking Gogol's text, Pintilie turned the titular inspector general, a nobody, into Satan himself, and orchestrated an apocalyptic finale that conjured up both the biblical massacre of the innocents and the horrors of the Nazi gas chambers. It lasted three performances. Ciulei was abruptly dismissed as the head of the Bulandra, and Pintilie was obliged to go abroad to find work.

Jack Lang, the French minister of culture, then the director of the Theatre National de Chaillot, came to the rescue and engaged Pintilie to direct a production of Gozzi's "Turandot." "Here I was 40 years old, beginning a career in the West at an age when most people are already established. And I thought to myself, this production must make a big splash." To play Turandot, he hired an actress named Andrea Ferreol, who had just appeared in the film "La Grande Bouffe" and tipped the scales at 225 pounds. He then canvassed France, Italy, the Netherlands and England for 18 dwarfs, and set them dancing around Turandot, "their erotic dream," in a highly animated state of sexual excitement. In one scene, the dwarfs tried grotesquely to rape her.

"One of the dwarfs was black," he remembers, "and Jack Lang came to me and said, 'We can't have that. That's racist.' I told him, 'I have just left a country where one of my productions was banned because the chief actor supposedly limped like Brezhnev. I have had enough of censorship. If you insist that the black dwarf does not participate in the rape, I will undress him, put him nude on the stage and have him make a rude gesture to the audience." The production proceeded, as Pintilie intended, and his career was on -- with a vengeance.

In 1983, at the invitation of Ciulei, Pintilie made his American directorial debut at the Guthrie with Chekhov's "The Seagull." He returned there the following season for "Tartuffe," which he subsequently restaged at Arena. The two men are a study in contrasts -- Ciulei, suave and aristocratic of manner; Pintilie, rough-hewn and disheveled. But their friendship runs deep.

"He is absolutely one of my true friends," Ciulei says. "But it is a deep, difficult friendship. He once directed me in 'The Children of the Sun' and I think it was, perhaps, the best acting performance I ever gave. Lucian demands perfection -- and he is right -- but in the theater, the tension can get very high. Nowadays when we meet, we still criticize one another's work severely. But sometimes, we just joke and have fun. His humor is quite special, when he is relaxed."

The relationship is further cemented by the fact that Pintilie's wife, Romanian actress Clody Bertola, was first married to Ciulei. "Despite this savage and caricatural vision of mine," Pintilie says, "I have great confidence that positive and tender things can exist in the world. Every year, for 10 years, we all spent New Year's Day together -- me, Liviu, my wife, and yes, my wife's first husband. For she had a husband before she married Liviu. Here we were -- three men, sitting at the side of the woman we all loved deeply.

"There is something sublime in that image -- an 80-year-old man, another 60, the third 50, and a woman, whose age didn't count at all. Whenever I think of it, it gives me a feeling of calm and stability. I have always been fascinated by women's powers of attraction, their complete superiority over the male sex. You will see that, too, in 'The Wild Duck' -- the homage that I feel obliged to pay to women."

If Ciulei and Pintilie have also come to share a similar artistic exile, Pintilie allows himself to rail against his fate and is invariably more outspoken in expressing his discontent. Indeed, he assumes an almost rapturous intensity when he talks about returning to Romania.

"It is my destiny to make films in my homeland," he says. "It is in my genes. Luckily, I have been able to express myself in other countries and other languages over the past 12 years. But the artist always expresses himself best in his own country. Andre Wajda's finest films were made in Poland. Those he made in France with French actors were failures, even though he was given every liberty. Faulkner wrote about a single county in the South all his life. Unlike so many artists, who refuse to go back to Romania, it is my ambition. There are many people who would like nothing better than for me to stay abroad. I refuse to give them satisfaction."