International theater festivals thrive in the close confines of multicultural Europe, but they have never flourished in America, largely because of the great distances theater companies must travel to participate. So the 20th biennial Theatre of Nations, beginning today in Baltimore, comes as a welcome aberration to thousands of theatergoers in this country who have never before had the opportunity to sample so many renowned international troupes in one place at one time.

Nineteen theater companies and individual performers representing 12 nations will transform Baltimore into a movable dramatic feast through June 29, with performances scheduled at Center Stage, the Baltimore School for the Performing Arts, the Peabody Conservatory and other venues, most of which are located along a 15-minute walk between the Inner Harbor and Mount Royal Center.

A major factor in selecting participants was language, says Philip Arnoult, Theatre of Nations codirector and the founder-director of the Theatre Project, a 15-year-old international center that will serve as the venue for five of the groups.

"I once saw the great national myth of Iceland performed in Icelandic, and it worked for me for about six minutes because it was an interesting stage, but then I was absolutely lost," he says. "We were looking for work that didn't present a barrier -- either it was highly visual work, or dance or musical work, or it was work that was indeed performed in English."

One good example is Jordcirkus, a Swedish company that performs in four languages, including English. Jordcirkus, whose members live together, sharing expenses, child-raising responsibilities and artistic decisions, opens the festival at 2 p.m. today with a free outdoor performance of "As the Bird Flies" at Rash Field on the Inner Harbor. Another good example is the internationally celebrated Suzuki Company of Toga. Although Suzuki will present its production of "Clytemnestra" in Japanese, the group's highly stylized method of acting -- in which each word becomes an act of the body -- enables non-Japanese-speaking audiences to follow the Greek tragedy.

Other acclaimed foreign participants include Hungary's Gyor Ballet, which will present its interpretation of "The Miraculous Mandarin," and Czechoslovakia's Bolek Polivka, one of Europe's great inventors of modern theater who, with his troupe, Divadlo na Provazku, uses an array of costumes, masks and puppets to enhance "The Jester and the Queen."

The Theatre of Nations is a project of the International Theatre Institute (ITI), a worldwide network established by UNESCO in 1946. Baltimore is the first North American city to host the festival, which previously has been in such cities as Paris, Warsaw, Caracas and Venice.

"Baltimore is both small enough and large enough -- large enough to fund something like this, and small enough to saturate . . . as you really can't do in New York or Chicago or Los Angeles," says T. Edward Hambleton, producer of this Theatre of Nations. Hambleton says he expects the festival to draw more than 35,000 people.

Baltimore also has experience organizing theater festivals (the New Theatre festival from 1977 to 1979 and the Baltimore International Theatre Festival in 1981) and has been successful at forming public-private partnerships supporting the arts.

Linda Panitz, head of the festival's Baltimore Planning Committee, says the festival is being financed with $335,000 from Baltimore and Maryland government agencies and the National Endowment for the Arts, and $309,000 raised in the Baltimore business community. Ticket sales are expected to raise $150,000.

One of the highlights of the domestic entries will be the Music Theatre Group/Lenox Arts Center's remounting of "The Garden of Earthly Delights" by Baltimorean Martha Clarke. The play, which won New York's 1985 Drama Desk Award and an Obie for best musical score, interprets the famed Hieronymus Bosch triptych with seven dancers and three musicians -- all capable of flight -- exploring the Garden of Eden, the Seven Deadly Sins and Hell.

Other American productions include Fred Curchack's "The Inquest for Freddy Chicken," a musical mystery that employs dolls, masks and lights, and Theatre Parde s' (formerly A Travelling Jewish Theatre) "Berlin, Jerusalem and the Moon," a comedy-drama that deals with Jewish identity.

"The way to keep the world pasted together is to learn to make good gatherings rather than making excuses for bad gatherings," says Martha Coigney, ITI vice president and director of its U.S. center.sk,2

Such a bad gathering was seemingly averted last month when the National Theatre of Great Britain's stage adaptation of "Animal Farm" -- George Orwell's stinging satire of Stalinist Russia -- was dropped from the festival because of fears that four "embarrassed" Soviet bloc countries would withdraw their entries.

"The essential desire was to make sure that everybody came," says Hambleton. "We didn't want a Moscow without the U.S. or a Los Angeles without the Soviets," he says, alluding to the last two Summer Olympic games.

"Animal Farm" will still be presented as scheduled Tuesday through Sunday at the Morris A. Mechanic Theater, but independently from the Theatre of Nations. Nevertheless, the U.S. premiere of the play Tuesday night will serve as the centerpiece of a gala benefit for the festival. Ambassadors from countries participating in the festival, including those of Britain, Hungary, Bulgaria and Czechoslovakia, as well as celebrities such as Joe Papp, Helen Hayes, Colleen Dewhurst and Mandy Patinkin, are expected to attend the play and a reception at the Omni International Hotel.

"This is like Halley's Comet," says Arnoult of the assembled theater companies. "It'll probably be a long time before any of us will see this constellation of really world supernovas again.

"There's always an inside and an outside to festivals," he adds. "The outside is that the theatrical public is going to have this real feast of work from around the world. But what really interests me is the inside. And the inside is the meetings that will happen, meetings in all of their glory."

One such meeting will take place under the rubric of the University of the Theatre of Nations -- a month-long program that has 30 young theater professionals from around the world coming together for workshops with instructors such as Hal Prince.

"Here's a group, albeit only 30, that will make connections that will be felt 25 years from now in the world of theater," says Arnoult.

There also will be the kind of casual meetings that will go on between the performers, he says, noting that he plans to set up behind his town house what he has dubbed the Club 45, a gathering place where artists can come together and talk and buy beer, wine or soda for 45 cents. "Whether it's somebody who changes someone else's view of the whole world of theater, or just that 'I've made a new friend,' that's what it's all about."