July means Lincoln Center Festival, which offers the residents of Second City a blend of the marvelous, the pretentious and the boring, sometimes in the same evening. Like all such undertakings, it's a mixed bag, but at least the contents run to the unpredictable, and Basil Twist's "La Bella Dormente Nel Bosco," one of this year's most obscure offerings, became a sleeper hit.

Twist is the master puppeteer whose "Symphonie Fantastique," an abstract fantasy performed in a huge tank of water, brought him to the attention of New York theatergoers. Since then he's presented a new project every year or so, each different from the ones that came before. If I had a few million bucks to spare, I'd build him a theater in midtown Manhattan and turn him loose to do whatever he liked in collaboration with whomever he liked.

This time around, Twist teamed up with the Gotham Chamber Opera and the Fuma Sacra Chamber Choir to stage Ottorino Respighi's extremely rare 1922 puppet-opera version of "Sleeping Beauty." Respighi is known in this country for "The Fountains of Rome," "The Pines of Rome" and not much else, but in Italy he's rightly admired as a witty, wonderfully lyrical composer. "La Bella Dormente" is all that and more, and Twist's magical staging commingles singers, puppets and puppeteers to tell the familiar tale (at the end they all dance together, in a breathtaking piece of theatrical wizardry). The puppets were bewitchingly characterful, the singers first-rate. How sad to think that this show received only a half-dozen performances! It belongs in an off-Broadway theater, where it would surely run until the end of time.

If "La Bella Dormente" was an unmixed bag of pleasure, then "Modern Noh Plays," a double bill of one-acts by Yukio Mishima, was . . . well, I'm not sure what it was, to tell the truth. Mishima is one of modern literature's oddest ducks, a Japanese novelist who ran his own little paramilitary group on the side and ritually disemboweled himself in 1970 when his attempt to start a revolution failed.

His writings are more talked about than read in the United States, and I'd never seen any of his stage pieces until Lincoln Center Festival imported Yukio Ninagawa's production of a double bill drawn from a sequence of plays loosely based on Noh, the 14th-century Japanese theatrical form. Of the two, "Sotoba Komachi," a fable about a 99-year-old crone and a young poet who falls in love with her, is the more fully realized. It's almost surrealistic in effect, yet the acting of Haruhiko Jo (the male actor who plays the old woman) has a devastatingly direct impact, and the stage pictures created by Ninagawa and his team of designers are indelible in their queer vividness. "Yoroboshi," the tale of a foppish psychopath blinded in an American air raid, doesn't work nearly as well --

it dissolves into a Wagner-accompanied rant that smacks too much of Mishima's own manias -- but I still found it oddly compelling.

On the other hand, Merce Cunningham's "Ocean," a full-evening dance-in-the-round first seen at the festival in 1996 in an outdoor performance, was a major disappointment. I saw the New York premiere and found it uneven but not without memorable episodes, among them a powerful finale. Alas, I fear the sense of occasion on that beautiful summer night clouded my memory, for last month's indoor performance at the Rose Theater was mostly just dull. Cunningham's dances have grown more idea-driven and less choreographically vivid in recent years, and "Ocean," with its ear-numbing pseudo-John Cage score for a quartet of antiphonal instrumental groups located in the balconies of the theater, looks and sounds almost like a self-parody. You know it's by Cunningham -- it couldn't be by anyone else -- but that doesn't make it good.

Far more to my liking was Pilobolus's first full-evening dance, "Megawatt {gt} Full Strength," which premiered at the Joyce Theater as part of the company's annual month-long New York season. Directed by Jonathan Wolken, it's a compact, 70-minute piece accompanied by the decidedly non-Pilobolean music of such contemporary rock bands as Primus, Radiohead and Massive Attack. Twitchy, choreographically dense and in places unexpectedly violent, it left me hungry for an immediate second viewing. "This one isn't your father's Pilobolus," Wolken says, and he's right: "Megawatt {gt} Full Strength" departs effectively from the company's familiar style without falling into the deadly trap of pretending to be Up to the Minute.

Needless to say, old is also good, and the Mint Theater Company, an off-Broadway troupe specializing in small-scale revivals of undeservedly forgotten plays of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, has racked up another winner with John Galsworthy's "The Skin Game," which runs through Aug. 14. Written in 1920, it's a Snidely Whiplash-style Vicwardian melodrama about upward mobility and its discontents. And though the dialogue is as quaint as a weekend house party, the plot contains more than its share of joltingly unexpected twists, keeping you guessing right up to the final curtain. Strong performances by the ensemble cast make this low-budget offering one of the best shows in town.

Summer is when the art galleries of Second City throw together exhibitions of their unsold inventory items. Some are bargain-basement jobs, others minor miracles of curatorial ingenuity.

"Scapes/Landscapes," up at Salander-O'Reilly Galleries through Aug. 26, is one of the latter, a lovely two-room show featuring mostly outstanding paintings by a wide-ranging assortment of mostly notable 20th-century American representationalists who portrayed the visible world with a modernist's freedom. Among those present are Milton Avery, Stuart Davis, Jane Freilicher, Paul Georges, John Marin, Louisa Matthiasdottir and Fairfield Porter, nearly all of them represented by museum-quality work. Best of all are "Lake Hopatcong," a late canvas (circa 1940-46) by the inexplicably underappreciated Arnold Friedman, and two new miniature landscapes by Albert Kresch, a Brooklyn-based artist who in a better-run world would be both rich and famous. This is a show to see and see again.

"La Bella Dormente Nel Bosco," a puppet-opera retelling of "Sleeping Beauty," was the short-lived highlight of the Lincoln Center Festival. Pilobolus's "Megawatt {gt} Full Strength" departs from the troupe's usual style but delivers a bracing jolt.