Peter Brook's Mahabharata returns to BAM in a much-reduced state.
The Mahabharata, the ancient Sanskrit epic of warring dynasties often said to be the longest ever written, obviously left a lasting impression on British director Peter Brook. In the 1980s, he and playwright Jean-Claude Carrière adapted it into a nine-hour stage show, which later became a five-hour film. Almost three decades later, Brook revisits the story in Battlefield, a reduced and refocused version of the original, now making its U.S. premiere in its most natural of homes, BAM's Harvey Theatre.
Brook's Mahabharata actually inaugurated the Harvey in 1987 (it had been a long-abandoned movie house before BAM took over). Despite its length and spare design, the show was a complete sensation. It's hard to feel much of that excitement in this 80-minute presentation, which focuses on the part of the story after most of the characters have already died. There's a great amount of reflection, but precious little action in this sleepy adaptation of the legendary theatrical event. The mythology around the play may have superseded the actual story onstage at this point.
The tale begins after the Pandavas, led by Yudhishthira (Jared McNeill), have won a great battle over the Kauavas, who are the sons of the blind King, Dritarashtra (Sean O'Callaghan). This makes Yudhishthira the undisputed King, but how will he reign over the devastation left in the wake of war? His mother, Kunti (Carole Karemera), drops a bombshell by revealing that Yudhishthira's nemesis, Karna, was actually his half brother. To atone for his guilt, Yudhishthira spends the rest of the play torturing the audience with parables about lusty worms, righteous kings, death, and destiny. Based on the notes in the program, this is meant to offer a contrast to our current crop of world leaders, who lack Yudhishthira's reflective qualities. In practice, it feels more like a kindergarten storytime.
Brook's staging is typically minimalist, stripped to the bare essentials. Bamboo shoots appear in little piles on the floor that are mostly ignored by the performers, like giant pickup sticks in the age of video games (no set designer credited). Clad in black pajamas (cultish costume design by Oria Puppo), the characters exchange multicolored blankets and scarves to indicate the portrayal of different characters. If not for these indispensable garments, it would be very difficult to discern one role from another.
There are glimmers of exciting performances, like when Ery Nzaramba plays a sassy mongoose with the audacity to ask if there are any poor people in the BAM audience. The handsome McNeill carries himself with the gravitas of a King. Unfortunately, the actors all speak in a uniformly halting and deliberate tone, seemingly meant to emphasize the fact that the story they're telling is very important. In actuality, it just makes everyone sound like they've just woken up from a long nap.
Brook and codirector Marie-Hélène Estienne end the play on a particularly pretentious note: The four actors of the cast sit and watch drummer Toshi Tsuchitori (who deftly accompanies the whole show) cool down, playing softer and softer until he stops. They all sit in silent tableaux with the house lights raised for several moments until someone in the audience mercifully claps, freeing us all to go home.
Undoubtedly, there are many viewers who revel in this kind of theater. Brook acknowledged them in his 1968 book, The Empty Space, when he wrote, "...there is always a deadly spectator, who for special reasons enjoys a lack of intensity and even lack of entertainment...In his heart he sincerely wants a theatre that is nobler-than-life and he confuses a sort of intellectual satisfaction with the true experience which he craves."
With its mystical seriousness and fetishization of ancient eastern wisdom, there is something very deadly about Battlefield, a show that seems to be riding on the reputation of glories past. Serious students of the theater may be tempted to see it for its historical value, but doing so is the theatrical equivalent of eating an entire vegan cake in one sitting while congratulating yourself for making healthy choices: You probably won't enjoy its dry flakiness while you're consuming it and you'll definitely regret the experience after a few hours of digestion.